My pilgrimage starts in a bus station in Gonder where a 16 year-old boy with one arm held my hand. He winked, he half-smiled, and he spoke broken English repeating “Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday for Jesus Christ!” He learned I was going to celebrate Ethiopian Christmas in Lalibela, and he wanted to help get me on the pilgrim’s path.
For centuries, Ethiopian orthodox Christians have walked from hundreds of kilometers away to the celebration known as Genna. Going by foot is not only free but proves a pilgrim’s dedication to Egzabier, Ethiopian orthodox word for God. And if a pilgrimage is not about dedication to Egzabier, there is little sense in getting out of bed on Christmas morning. I wasn’t going to walk to Lalibela however. I was already in Gonder, and I planned to ride in a bus along a mountainous road through the central highlands taking all day to reach the sacred destination.
I waited with my new friend Haile Mariam (meaning “Power of Mary”) behind a dying bus that spewed exhaust into the motionless crowd, and then he led me to an office hidden in the bus station. He kept telling me in Amharic that we were going to Lalibela together. I didn’t dispute what he said, but had my doubts about going to Lalibela with Haile Mariam. He came to Gonder to find his brother. He told me to wait and he disappeared.
Dozens of elderly orthodox pilgrims lounged around the office door. They slowly counted their money, bouncing questions off one another about the final price of the bus trip. Inside, a well-worn pilgrim grappled with understanding that the price of the bus ride was per person and not per group of pilgrims. The cashier counted out more than 800 birr and gently handed three tickets to the pilgrim. I silently waited like Job cash-in-hand, ready to make my great sacrifice for a motorized pilgrimage to Egzabier’s house
I was awake and religiously sober at 5:15am to get on my pilgrim bus. I underwent a transformation in the hotel across the street from the bus station that night. In my sleep I saw flashes of Egzabier’s light, but I think it might have been childhood memories of Highway to Heaven. In the morning, I jumped out of my tourist skin and wrapped a gabi around my body and a shash around my head. The gabi is essentially a blanket worn by Ethiopians from the highlands, because although Ethiopia is in Africa, it is more cold than hot. And the gabi is especially handy because it also serves as bedding. Slowly we boarded our 60-seat bus. I was the only pilgrim with a large bag. Some of my co-pilgrims carried small satchels full of coins and some carried bottles of water, nothing else. I was also the only farenji on this particular pilgrimage and by the looks of it, the youngest pilgrim on the team.I sat in the front row at the window and behind me a sea of black faces swayed to the movements of the bus, each face framed in white garments, some smiling, some grimacing and probably thinking about the 12-hour journey that lies ahead.
“Why go by airplane to Laliblela you don’t go?” the pilgrim next to me asked.
“Expensive it is,” was all I could muster.
In his hand, he clutched a torn-off piece of a plastic bag wrapped around a dozen coins, valuing between 10 and 25 cents. I would learn later that a steady supply of coins is a sure way to pave with blessings the pilgrim’s path.
After seven hours of windy roads hugging the terraced mountains, we finally reached the first pilgrimage stop. Dashena is a small town around 4 hours from Lalibela. Settled on a highland plateau reaching 3000m, the Dashena community raises livestock and farms teff, a staple and the main ingredient of Ethiopian-spongy flatbread known as injera.
Our bus turned off the paved highway into the heart of Dashena and quickly arrived to a large tent where other pilgrim buses were pulling in and pulling out, all moving steadily along the pilgrim conveyor belt. The orthodox church of Dashena was using Genna as an opportunity to raise funds for the building of their “first” church, which by the looks of the gray-cement skeleton, the church cupola was far from finished. As a group, my fellow pilgrims and I sat down to metal trays loaded with injera and wat, a sauce of chick-peas and lentils, and orange soda. All of the devotees have been abstaining from meat for the past month, a fasting devotion which culminates in a series of feasts on January 6th and 7th.
As I sipped my orange soda, an elder from the church sat down next to me. “Do you see and visit our church?”
“The church I see, but finished it is not,” I said.
“How long has it been under construction?” I change to English.
“Eight years,” he replied.
“How much time until church finish?” I ask in Amharic.
“Egzabier yakal (God knows).”
“Why doesn’t the Orthodox Church just pay for the building of your church? They must have a lot of money and your village is very beautiful and your people are contrite,” I say.
He remained staring at posters of orthodox saints and a collection box surrounded by shiny coins. A girl with a pot of wat walked by and he quickly ordered her to add another dollop to my injera. “Thank you for helping our church,” he said and approached another group of pilgrims.
After the lunch we went back to the bus and the pilgrims were already heartily drinking from tomato tins full of korofi, or hand-pressed barley beer. I took my place in the shade between two pilgrims and swallowed some priestly stout.
ONWARDS, EVER ONWARDS
Possesed by korofi and the spirit, some pilgrims sitting near the front of the bus were suddenly overcome with the desire to gather coins and birr from everybody in the bus to throw out the window. Along the road, umbrella-toting men, (presumably village holy men) were waiting for pilgrims to shower them with silver (the Amharic word birr also means silver) and turned the umbrella upside down to capture the wealth. I poised my arm out the window and waiting patiently until I had the opportunity to pop a silver plated 3-pointer from my bus seat. Maybe they too will build a church one day, I thought. On the downhill, the bus driver hit the gas and nobody ever worried about how much money we tossed into wind.
As we approached Lalibela the group broke out in a feverish clap and high-pitched ululating, especially from the women. Well into the pilgrim circuit, we made another stop at Nakuta La’ab monastery, one kilometer from Lalibela. We got off the bus and walked across the smooth rock surface to a monastery built in a limestone cave covered with seeps and green algae. I walked ceremoniously, swaying with the Christmas spirit when a guard appeared.
“Farenji, ticket buy you must.”
“Why pay I? I am pilgrim. It is true I am farenji pilgrim, but I come on bus with my brethren today at 530 am in Gondar. Later we all eat the same injera in Dashena. And now we want to meet Egzabier together in the monastery,” I replied.
He looked at me and paused.
“Get in!” he said and slid his receipt book back into his robe.
The faithful received blessings from the priest in the cave. One by one, they filled their bottles with holy water dripping from the cave’s ceiling. On the way back to the bus, another cup of korofi was the order along with some bread with tasty traces of fennel seed. By then, my herd had begun to accept me as a Christian, even though a couple of women, when asked if I was orthodox (to which I invariably said yes) then asked me why from my neck hung no cross, a guilty wardrobe malfunction on such a pilgrimage.
For Christians in Lalibela, pulling a cross from your shirt is a badge of honor. Either a small wooden diamond shaped cross or an elaborate silver lattice dangles on the neck of every Christian in town. Even the poor orphan, whose cross has since disappeared in the dusty streets, still wears a tattered string. I definitely needed to affirm my pilgrim status with a cross.
Lalibela is a small community of nearly 20,000 orthodox Christians hidden in the central highlands of Ethiopia. The town, more than 800 kilometers north of Addis Ababa, is accessible only by dirt road or Ethiopian Airlines, the latter enabling thousands of tourists to visit the Lalibela churches without having to hire Landcruisers, or worse, take local buses over steep mountain passes and bumpy roads for hours on end.
The city has dubbed itself the “holy land” of Ethiopian Christianity and is the site of an amazing feat of medieval architecture consisting of 11 churches carved out of pure basalt bedrock. The churches are the contribution of King Lalibela, Ethiopian emperor ruling in the late 12th century and were said to have been built in 23 years with the help of angels. The legend says Lalibela put his earth angels to work on the new holy site because Jerusalem had fallen into the hands of the Muslims in 1187.
In Lalibela town, the bus pulled up to a gate behind which a dozen cylindrical two-story rock and straw homes scattered across a basalt escarpment dumping into a deep valley. Every family in Lalibela with any space to proffer to the pilgrims, opened their doors. Nearest the churches, pilgrims slept in arranged rows in the shadows of the stone houses.
Far-flung teams of pilgrims from Agew, Gonder and Tigray all huddled in unison, cocoon-wrapped in their gabis quietly waiting for sunrise. During the day, the rocky hillsides around the rock-hewn churches turned into Christian markets full of pilgrim necessities like crosses, wooden staffs, bibles and fly swatters made from horse hair. A pilgrim could buy sandals that will take him the three days back to his village or just as easily sit down for a cup of korofi, ubiquitous pilgrim juice.
The next day I hiked to Asheten Mariam monastery above Lalibela in a slow current of weary men and women. On the hike I found a cross hanging from a thin rope made from a sinewy plant and surreptitiously tied it on. I finally felt unstoppable.
Over 300 meters above Lalibela, Asheten village sits supine in the shadows of towering columns of the basalt looming high above the holy land. The church and monastery are another 300 meters up the mountainside halfway to the top. On the top of the actual rock towers (3400m) there is a small rock-hewn sanctuary where monks live for months at a time praying day and night.
In the afternoon, I meandered through the 11 churches of Lalibela. Behind minute doorways carved into 4 meter -thick walls of basalt, pilgrim pedestrian traffic jams built up and dispersed like heart beats sliding through a tenuous heart valve. Robed in white gabis, believers uncaringly lost themselves in the labyrinthine complex.
Their prayers filled the gray matter with silence and the sun’s rays crawled over the rock walls towards the east.
Inside the churches, priests wearing colorful suits of shiny material held crosses and sat in front of tapestries depicting Ethiopian saints, Jesus Christ and Mary. Every church has its own cross or set of crosses hidden in the holy of the holies which the priests break out only around the holidays. I deposited five birr in a basket and knelt before the priest. He pressed the cross to my forehead, and I kissed the lower part of the cross. We repeated this two more times, and then he sternly patted my back with the cross. I stood up and another priest scooped a spoonful of ash into the cup of my hand. I branded my face with an ashen-cross.
I spent the rest of the day drawing out plans to get a good view high on the walls surrounding bete Mariam (St Mary’s church) for Christmas morning mass, the culmination of the pilgrimage. I told a friend from Lalibela who owns a hotel about my plans to see what goes on in bete Mariam on Christmas morning.
“Our cultures are very different. The Europeans always want to see the action when they come to Christmas. And yet thousands of pilgrims who have walked hundreds of kilometers through the mountains just want to be here. They just want to be in Lalibela, they don’t want to see the priests, many don’t feel like they could obtain such a luxury.”
That night thousands of pilgrims bundled up on the sloping basalt rock faces around bete Mariam while the residents of Lalibela began preparing the first of three consecutive feasts. I fell asleep to the soft chants and humming of the pilgrims that continued throughout the night until Christmas morning.
FREE SOLO TO HEAVEN
In a corridor that winds around bete Mariam and leads to neighboring bete Medhane Alem (Savior of the World church), there is dark green wall covered with lichen that has three brick sized rock grips and plenty of friction for the feet. The rock is so perfectly carved it is as if its 12-century sculptor had purposefully created a hidden ladder stamped in the basalt to tempt wiry priests and shoeless followers to caress the curvature of the temple.
In three easy moves, you could go from the depths of the rock-hewn church complex to the holy surface and stand with the priests and deacons as well as the hundreds of devotees who had spent the last ten hours lying on the hard surface intermittently chanting Egzabier’s praise.
Once the coast was clear, I began scrambling. A Christian looking down from the wall on the other side of the corridor cheered me on. I stopped after the first move and considered down climbing. Then I wondered if a farenji wearing a gabi had ever attacked the north-face of the wall surrounding bete Mariam and looked for the next hold. “Ayzoh!” onlookers yelled out. Once I was up to the surface, I looked back and saw a group of women walking down the corridor who didn’t even notice. I savored the view of thousands of pilgrims perched on the rocks surrounding the church.
Bete Mariam is a free-standing church in the middle of a cluster of five churches. On Christmas morning, the courtyard was brimming with priests, deacons and several farenji, whose tour guides got them the money seats. I stood silently behind a line of holy men singing, swaying and shaking their tsanatsele, a handheld instrument that sounds like a high-hat cymbal.
Twenty-five feet above the church courtyard, over thirty priests moved back and forth along the precipice and sent their mighty voices towards the 800 year-old church walls that slowly buckle each and every year under human devotion.
Layers of tunnels and corridors circling the church carried the mass of voices to the rest of the pilgrims. Although they could not see the movement, they were completely aware of everything going on in the cavernous bete Mariam. The rhythms of the chanting and drumming picked up speed and melodic clapping bounced back and forth from the walls of the rock cornucopia finally dissipating into the atmosphere.
I walked around the rooftop and sat at the highest point on the wall. When I sat down, a hand landed on my shoulder. I turned around and recognized his face.
“In Gonder you me remember?” he asked smiling.
“My god… your name is…” I searched the pilgrim index in my head.
“Haile Mariam. This my brother is. Home we are”
I did not expect to see Haile Mariam on Christmas morning or ever again, but when he disappeared in the bus station he did not cease to exist. For Haile Mariam and his brother the pilgrimage to Lalibela was not a once-in-a-lifetime religious journey. They were just going home.