Sunday, October 19, 2014

‘Bela Notte

From the mystifyingly majestic mountains and glorious green grasses of Gondar, we boarded a short 30-minute flight to a small town renowned for its ancient history and magnificent architecture, the lovely Lalibela. Renamed after the king who was credited with the construction of the town’s many churches over 900 years ago, Lalibela is now a very small town long since stripped of its political significance, but retaining the foundation of the country’s religious history. Eleven monasteries of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian church as a whole make up one of the nation’s nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, though there are a number of others further outside of the town’s center.

The second leg of our Ethiopian flight triangle, from Gondar to Lalibela

Not only did the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela display the feats of engineering in carving out structures from one piece of solid rock, they showed the prowess of architectural craftsmanship in using simple hand tools like hammers and chisels. The task of designing, locating, and then carving these rock-hewn churches seemed monumental – they were not just monasteries, they were works of art.

There are two main types of rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, monolithic and semimonolithic. Monolithic churches are carved entirely from one piece of rock or stone and are free-standing, whereas semimonolithic churches are still attached to the main rock wall. Some semimonolithic churches originated as caves and structures were carved around them.

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(Left) A monolithic rock-hewn church, carved entirely from a single rock (the columns were renovated later to maintain the structural integrity of the building) (Right) A sample of some of the fine interior carving seen in the churches

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(Left) Another expertly crafted monolithic church and (right) a 12th Century wooden church door or the start of an episode of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”

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A series of semi-monolithic churches, as indicated by one or more walls/ceilings being connected to the exterior rock

What an amazing accomplishment to carve out these massive structures from a single rock by hand, and to still include such articulate detail in the sculpting of the windows, roofs, interior columns and ceilings, not to mention the wooden doors and furniture that have withstood over 900 years of use! All of these churches are still used by locals for daily worship, which is why the entire enclosure is closed to visitors from noon to 2 p.m. everyday.

Our favorite of the monasteries was the Church of Saint George. This was the main reason I wanted so badly to go to Lalibela, let alone Ethiopia. After seeing so many pictures and footage of the Church on travel channels, I finally got to feast my eyes on the real thing, and it was completely worth the trip.

The Church of St. George was the last of King Lalibela's projects, so it was the most ornate and advanced. The aspect that set it apart from the other churches was the shape of the structure. When viewed from the top it is a perfectly symmetrical cross, and surrounding the whole structure is the square stone pit that the church was cut into. Another unique feature is its changing color that has aged over time. Unlike the other churches which are covered with scaffolding, St. George's is uncovered and an orange-colored lichen has been growing on the high exterior walls and in the crevices of the window designs. The bold colors accent the church even more and it gives it a sense of character and elegance. The inside of the church is also very captivating with its high vaulted ceilings and columns. It was beautiful and both Steve and I were in awe of its architectural prowess.

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Several views of the final and most well-known of King Lalibela’s works – the Church of Saint George

In addition to our tour of the primary circuit in Lalibela, Belle and I were able to visit another monastery outside of the town center, although this one would take us on a slightly more adventurous route. The Asheton Monastery lies perched in the mountains above Lalibela and overlooks the town at a towering height of over 3,200 meters (over 10,500 feet) which is comparable to that of the Simien Mountains. It can be reached by foot - and is regularly by locals, including students who make the over-600 meter ascent as part of their daily commute to and from school (now I see how Africans are able to continually dominate in running events…). But for tourists, the recommended mode of transport is by mule. With stronger legs than horses, these tenacious creatures are able to bound up the steep, rocky mountain terrain with remarkable speed, especially when considering the size of the cargo on their backs (a sincere pole to mine).

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(Left) All aboard the mule express to the Asheton Monestary and (Right) watch your step on those steep slopes, donkeys!

There are some parts, however, which are too precipitous to pass on mule-back and must be done by foot. When you finally near the top of the ridge and are within eyesight of the monastery’s entrance, you reach a final path which is curvy and narrow, tightly hugging the jagged cliffs and dropping about 30 feet to one side. With the stunningly green scenery visible to those who dare to take it in along the nerve-racking pass, navigating this treacherous trek truly makes you feel like you’ve entered another world, or at least another time, in which real natural adventure still exists.

The treacherous final pathway to the entrance of the monastery

Once we arrived at the Asheton Monastery and went inside the small assembly room, we were shown old artifacts of the church. One of these artifacts was the most excellent tome. This 600-year old book was made from animal skin and it was scribed in mostly black ink and cows' blood. [I LOVE books, especially old ones, so this was the highlight of my Asheton Monastery experience.] There were also drawings in the book and its script sounded so spiritual - we even got a sample reading from the residing priest. What was most miraculous though was the amazing condition of the book. It seemed so well preserved, yet we were told that it is used and read from almost every day! How great to have such a wonderful religious artifact that is still used to this day! I would feel so exhilarated to read from a book that I KNEW was also read from 600 years ago - talk about time travel!

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A truly ancient religious book of over 600 years, colored with animal blood and the inks of various flowers

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Breathtaking views from the top of the Asheton Monastery

1 comment:

  1. Such an adventure. The experience must be breathtaking. I really enjoy reading your blog.
    Luv you all,