Canyons near Mequat Mariam
© Kirsten Milhahn

Rock magic

  • TEXT KIRSTEN MILHAHN
  • PHOTOS KIRSTEN MILHAHN

Every Christmas, 60 000 Orthodox Christians make the pilgrimage to Lalibela in Ethiopia to visit eleven churches hewn into the rock there 800 years ago

The donkey knows the way. It trots along for hours over arid, yellow plains, our luggage on its back. My mountain guide, Fentaw Asnake, 30, and I pass through eucalyptus groves and roundhouse villages. He grew up here, and many people know his name. We hear children giggle on the other side of thick sisal hedges. Women sit outside their houses, grinding coffee and dried corn in wooden tubs on the ground. It is our first day on the trail through the highlands of northern Ethiopia, a landscape of craggy cliffs and deep canyons.

At the heart of the highlands lies Lalibela, a town of roughly 22 000 inhabitants. Its claim to fame is its eleven stone churches dating from the 12th and 13th century. Instead of rising into the sky, they are hewn into the rock floor, their roofs level with the ground. No bricks were used in their construction, either: Walls, pillars and windows are all carved from a single block of terracotta-colored rock. These rock churches form a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, which remains to this day one of the holiest sites for the over 1600-year-old Ethiopian Orthodox religion. At Christmas, which is celebrated on January 7, 60 000 people pilgrimage to Lalibela.

Stunning canyons and an early form of Christianity – Lalibela is a microcosm of Ethiopia

The town is a microcosm of Ethiopia, combining the earliest Christian history with breathtaking mountain landscapes. To explore both, do what the farmers in the area do and go on foot – with a donkey to carry your belongings.

A priest and his horse accompanied our author for a while

A priest and his horse accompanied our author for a while

© Kirsten Milhahn

 My guide and donkey come courtesy of an organized group of young mountain guides called Tesfa (Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives). Tesfa’s goal is to use tourism to help the region, rather than just tourist companies, and it also manages accommodation in an ecologically sustainable way. Tesfa was started in 2006, and today, several dozen mountain guides are able to earn a living from it, as are hundreds of families in the mountain villages, who run eleven comfortable guesthouses for tourists.

Our donkey stops in front of Mequat Mariam, where we will spend the first night. The guesthouse consists of three roundhouses without electricity, a kitchen building and an outhouse with an outside shower, but the spectacular view is ample compensation. Right behind the huts the ground falls steeply away, several hundreds of meters into a gorge. I am standing on a rocky outcrop at its edge, looking down onto craggy ridges that remind me of the Grand Canyon. The setting sun bathes the entire valley in delicate shades of mauve.

My hut is simple, from its spotless white bedding to its unplastered walls. All the windows, even the outhouse, have a stunning view of the gorge. We spend the evening by the campfire. A priest has invited my guide and me to his nearby home, and his hut is full of guests when we arrive, people from the village. They sit in a circle, laughing and conversing. His wife whips up a meal of beef and injera, the typical teff-flour flatbread. Afterwards, a guests begins playing the masinko, a traditional Ethiopian string instrument. As soon as he begins to sing, people jump up and run to the fire, circling each other, hands on hips, shaking their upper bodies in time to the beat.

At dawn, we set off again along the narrow trail above the gorge, our pack animal leading the way. Gelada monkeys, aka bleeding-heart baboons, lurk between rocks, while bearded vultures circle overhead. We keep our eyes open for the rarest of wild dogs, the Ethiopian wolf. As we leave the highlands and enter the noisy, crowded streets of Lalibela, I am torn from my revery.

Ethiopia’s sacred treasures: a priest with a 600-year-old book

Ethiopia’s sacred treasures: a priest with a 600-year-old book

© Kirsten Milhahn
Hewn into the stone: rock church Bete Giyorgis in Lalibela

Hewn into the stone: rock church Bete Giyorgis in Lalibela

© Kirsten Milhahn
Canyons near Mequat Mariam

Canyons near Mequat Mariam

© Kirsten Milhahn
A priest hurries down the steps to holy mass

A priest hurries down the steps to holy mass

© Kirsten Milhahn
Bete Giyorgis church

Bete Giyorgis church

© Kirsten Milhahn
Author Kirsten Milhahn

Author Kirsten Milhahn

© Kirsten Milhahn
View at sundown from the terrace of the restaurant Ben Abeba in Lalibela

View at sundown from the terrace of the restaurant Ben Abeba in Lalibela

© Kirsten Milhahn
A perfect sunset: Tourist guides Genet Derbe (left) and Fentaw Asnake with a visitor on the restaurant terrace

A perfect sunset: Tourist guides Genet Derbe (left) and Fentaw Asnake with a visitor on the restaurant terrace

© Kirsten Milhahn

 It’s market day. Mounds of teff are piled up in front of countless stands, scarves with bright borders flutter in the wind, and the air is rich with spices. It feels like the entire town is gathered here: young men in jeans, priests in white robes and women in colorful dresses.

I visit Bet Medhane Alem, the largest rock church. A narrow staircase leads down into the depths. Inside the church, I gaze up at the stone pillars rising more than ten meters above me. According to legend, God spoke to Lalibela, “King of the Bees” and lone ruler over the realm of Lasta in northern Ethiopia, nearly 1000 years ago, telling him to erect the holy site in Jerusalem’s image. Within just a few days, the king carved the monumental structures out of the volcanic rock – with the help of angels during the night. At least that’s what everyone here believes. Scientists believe that at least 40 000 laborers must have worked for several decades to hew the churches into the rock.

Legend also has it that the King of the Bees was responsible for tej, a sweet, highly intoxicating mead which I was served for the first time by Askalech Hailemelekot, the owner of the area’s most popular bar, Torpido Tej. Fentaw and I enjoyed a second cup, and had the idea for what would become the highpoint of my trip.

Yemrehanna Kristos is another rock church in the mountains, some 45 kilometers away from Lalibela. Estimated to be 80 years older than the other churches, it is also the most beautiful. We need to cross the highlands. In a Jeep? “Anyone can do that,” says Fentaw dismissively. He has a better idea: Wondimu Kebede’s auto rickshaw. The young man drives people through town every day, but he has never ventured into the mountains.

Soon, the bright blue vehicle is puttering into the valley with me in the backseat… only to stall at the first incline. The road is too dusty, Wondimu explains, cleaning the dirty distributor. Four involuntary stops later, we purr down the serpentine track, passing through villages where people have heard of auto rickshaws, but never actually seen one. Children run after us, squealing with excitement. Four hours later we arrive: Unlike the other churches, Yemrehanna Kristos was built inside a cave from stone slabs and timbers, without using a single nail, as the priest tells us. Then he points to the darkest corner of the churchyard, to the mummified remains of over 700 pilgrims, who came to Lalibela to experience the sacred and never left. I will leave, but in the certainty that you don’t have to be religious to sense the significance of this place, its buildings constructed nobody knows exactly how, flickering candlelight in the shadows of the church walls, mystical chants and joyful dancing – all against a backdrop of incredible natural beauty. The feeling that Lalibela is magical comes all by itself.


Get in the mood for the horn of Africa

Aroma

Solino coffee is not just grown, but also roasted and packaged in Ethiopia.

solino-coffee.com

Sound

Sound Ethio jazz fans will  enjoy “Sketches of Ethiopia” by Mulatu Astatke & friends.

jazzvillagemusic.com

Look

Handwoven scarves, airy shirts and casual dresses from East Africa.

lemlem.com

Tip: Go to tesfacommunityguides.com for details of Ethiopian highland tours


Kirsten Milhahn lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya as a freelance correspondent for Africa. What made her leave Hamburg and move to Africa? She loves the wildness and wide open spaces in that part of the world, people’s spontaneity, their warmth and talent for improvisation – and living life on the edge. Africa is a continent in transition. Many African countries are currently undergoing change, and centuries-old traditions exist side-by-side with a younger generation living a modern life in the big cities. These constrasts are what inspire her as a photographer and author. In images and text, she documents the current situation and shows her deep admiration for the creativity, courage and hope shown by so many brave people, often in the face of great hardship.

www.kirstenmilhahn.com