The eleven rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are carved from single pieces of volcanic rock and were miraculously built over twenty-three years by the Emperor Lalibela in the 12th century. Our guide Binyam told me that the angels came to help at night. I thought that maybe the angels should have stuck around to make sure the people had enough food to eat. Scott pointed out that this is where my faith falls short and he is correct. But angels or not, Lalibela is certainly otherworldly.
We wandered a labyrinth of subterranean corridors that smelled of incense and b.o. and pepper trees. The churches’ rock floors were worn smooth with 900 years of use and our socks slipped as we shuffled shoeless from chapel to chapel. Priests clad in turbans and ceremonial robes displayed their processional crosses and posed for pictures.
Bet Giyorgis, the most famous of the churches, is stamped into the ground in the shape of a Greek Cross. We passed through the village at twilight and a priest chanted on a hillside as we approached the church, washed pink with the sunset. We splashed our faces in holy water and visited a mummified pilgrim in a cave.
We left the next morning at dawn to hike for two hours up to Asheton Maryam, a church carved into the top of the mountain. We reached a height of 3150m and we felt pretty good about ourselves, except when the eight-year-old barefoot shepherds left us in the dust. We met some highlanders along the way. They showed us how they separated the wheat from the chaff and Scott responded by wowing them with his iphone.
Later that afternoon, we hung out with a nun in her cave and shared her sprouted chickpeas. Then we met the kids at the Love and Hope Orphanage, a grassroots community project. It was night and day from the orphanage in Addis where we later picked up Tariku. There are over four million orphans in Ethiopia alone. A whole generation of kids has been orphaned by AIDS, malaria, famine and poverty. We were privileged enough to see just a few of the ways that the various communities in Ethiopia are responding to the problem. Adoption was a solution for our family, but it is not the solution for Ethiopia’s children.
You hear a lot about the lost tribes of Israel when you have a Jewish family and you’re adopting a baby from Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Emperors all claimed to be descendants of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, but some historians believe that Ethiopians are actually descended from the tribe of Dan. This all may or may not be true, but the link is there in spirit and historically there was certainly a lot of genetic mixing and matching going on through the trade routes that spanned Africa and the Middle East.
When we landed in Gondar. I was all fired up to visit Wolleka, the old Falasha village on the outskirts of the city where the Ethiopian Jews lived before the Israeli airlifts in the late-eighties. But about ten minutes outside the airport, I spoke those sickening words, “Where is our camera?” The answer? Lost, of course. Lost being the theme of the day.
The good thing about having to file a report and wait at the airport for hours, was that we got to know our guide Getachew. He was obsessed with The Lord of the Rings and how it related to African history. If he was in America, he would have made a wicked D&D player. Above is a picture of Getachew and Scott by the banyan trees at the Bath of Fasilades, once used by the emperor Fasilades for a mass conversion but now filled only once a year for Timkat. Timkat celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, but it’s also kind of like Valentine’s Day. In days gone by, a boy would throw a lemon at the girl of his dreams and if she picked it up they would be engaged. Nowadays, the kids just exchange phone numbers and emails, but the spirit is the same.
How did we take the pictures, you ask? We bought a crappy film camera. Yes, film. Look it up. After we ran through a few rolls, we gave up and just took pictures with Scott’s iphone.
The next few days were spent on a whirlwind tour of Axum, Gondar and Lalibela, three major cities in the northern part of Ethiopia. Our guide in Axum had the traditional scarification of the Tigrayan people- diagonal lines cut into his eyebrows (done to children to keep the vision clear) and a cross carved into his forehead. He was passionate about archaeology and about JC. In profoundly religious Ethiopia, legend and history overlap in a way that makes it hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Miracles are an ever-present reality. In the Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, every last doorknob is symbolic of something else and there are hidden and holy places where only the priests are allowed. A sense of mystery hangs in the air as heavily as the frankincense.
The picture above is the building where the Ark of the Covenant supposedly resides. Only one man- the guardian of the ark- is allowed to look upon it. Don’t even think about getting too close because you’ll be paralyzed and your eyes will burn out of your head. Our guide told me that God himself chooses the guardian through an announcement from the angels. The building that houses the Ark is next door to St. Mary of Zion Church, built in 1967 by Hallie Selassie (that’s the Lion of Judah to all you Rastifari). The church itself looks like it belongs in Van Nuys, but it houses the 1000-year-old Miracle of St. Mary illuminated manuscript. The indigenous medieval Ethiopian art is cool for many reasons, the most notable of which is that Jesus and Mary and the rest of the gang are not farenji (foreigners). Jesus didn’t have blonde hair and blue eyes. Duh.
The Axum obelisk, the tallest of the enigmatic stelae of Axum, was recently returned to Axum after being plundered by Mussolini during the occupation. Ethiopians are proud of re-appropriating their lost historical artifacts. Another point of pride is that Ethiopia is the only African nation that was never colonized. But the Italians did try hard enough that now you get served bad spaghetti way too often at farenji hotels.
We’ve been home over a month already and it has been glorious, terrifying… fill-in-the blank with pretty much any adjective and you’d be right. But let me roll back the clock and try to give a little overview of our trip to Ethiopia, before I move on to the wondrous adventures of Tariku in Eagle Rock.
Scott and I left a week before our scheduled date to meet Tariku, with the intention of seeing some of the major sights and mostly just getting a feel for the land and its people. Uncharacteristically, we booked a tour beforehand with a travel agency recommended by a friend. We arrived at the chaotic airport in Addis Ababa and there to greet us was….no one. Our guide never showed up. And the money changer turned out to be on the other side of the one-way door we had already walked through. Welcome to Ethiopia. This happened to us about six times, in one form or another. It was a great exercise in chill-ness and quick thinking.
We managed to get to a hotel and to find our guide Fikre the next day. Fikre and a Steve McQueen-esque driver named Mustafa drove us through six or so hours of dusty roads and diesel fumes, then another 10k off-road to the Bilen Eco-Lodge on the edge of Awash National Park. The Bilen Lodge is run by the semi-nomadic and famously fierce Afar tribe. The land and the people both looked sand-blasted and sun-baked and beautiful in a desolate way. Our city mouse guides acted really tough until they encountered the country mouse Afar men, who all carry AK-47s and sabers as a matter of course.
The food at the lodge was simple and delicious. At the park the next day we saw baboons, oryx, gazelles, a crocodile, about ten million kinds of birds I’ve never seen before and about twenty million camels. The guide didn’t understand why Scott didn’t want to join the camels for a bath in the hot springs…
One of the images that stays in my mind from Ethiopia is the people walking by the side of the road. Everywhere. Miles and miles of people walking. The women have this casual, graceful gait, even when carrying giant water jugs on their backs.