ETHIOPIA: Africa’s Jerusalem

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The rock-hewn churches of Ethiopia are solid proof that Black people have always been more than “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”

Lalibela is a village of maybe 30,000 souls, wedged into the steep, rugged mountains of northern Ethiopia.   If it’s not at or near the top of your bucket list of destinations, you need to stop and re-do the list.

Now.  Right now. Before you read another word. Before you take another breath. The place is that special.

It’s easy to get caught up in the history of Ethiopia. It has so much:

  • The only country in Africa never to be colonized by a European power (though not for lack of trying, specifically by the Italians).
  • Defeated a modern, invading European army (see the Battle of Adwa).
  • A dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the most of any African country — and probably deserves more.

But like I said, this place is special — 11 of the world’s most extraordinary churches, each one carved down the equivalent of three to four stories into those same mountains some 900 years ago.

Full-fledged structures with artful supporting pillars and arches, all cut and chiseled from the inside out over the course of 23 years, by hand.

23 > 600
Compare that with the great European cathedrals, many of which took a century or more to erect (one, the Cologne Cathedral, took more than 600 years — and it wasn’t carved into solid rock).

So if you’re interested in architecture, you need to see these churches.

Unlike the great Egyptian pyramids, these aren’t abandoned relics. These are active churches of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian faith, and worshipers go there every day.

King Lalibela, the Ethiopian ruler who created the famed rock-hewn churches
King Lalibela

During major religious festivals like Timket and Meskel, pilgrims wearing prayer shawls of thin, white cotton may walk here over miles of stony ground — barefoot.

So if you’re interested in Ethiopian culture and Christianity, you need to see these churches.

THE SURVIVOR KING
The man who conceived these structures is also the one who gives their location its name, King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, part of the Zagwe dynasty.*

(*NOTE: For sheer drama,  Shakespeare would’ve loved Ethiopian royalty. If rival rulers weren’t trying to kill you, your ambitious relatives probably were. Lalibela’s brother and uncle forced him into exile, and a half-sister tried to poison him — all before he ever took the throne.)

Many Ethiopians traveled to the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, until Muslim Arabs captured it in 1137.  After that, Ethiopian Christian pilgrims trying to make the pilgrimage risked death.

The king’s solution — create his own Jerusalem. He chose the site — originally called Roha — organized the labor force and went to work, settling on the designs one by one, learning from each.

JERUSALEM TO ETHIOPIA
Once a single massive block of pink volcanic stone had been cut out from the rest of the mountain, the interior had to be carved from the top down and the inside out.  One mistake and it all would come crashing down on anyone beneath.

When it was finished, Africa had its own Jerusalem.  Now, Ethiopians had 11 mighty sanctuaries where they could freely and safely worship.

Almost a millennium later, they still do, walking for miles every day through the mountains, in all weather,  to get here.

The most iconic of the 11 is Beit Giyorgis, St. George’s church. It was the last one built, and the most impressive. It also is the only one carved in the classic shape of a crucifix.

The UN granted Lalibela’s churches World Heritage Site status in 1978. They erected gigantic canopies over several of them to shield them from the erosion of winter rains.

A somewhat less popular UN protective move was to move scores of Lalibela residents into new, modern homes, well away from the churches.  For the residents, that meant modern conveniences like running water, but a much longer –and steeper — walk to church.

HATERS GONNA DOUBT
Certain European pseudo-experts have suggested that Ethiopians could not have conceived, much less, built these structures themselves.  They must have had help, their theory goes, possibly from the Knights Templar.

This fanciful notion is roundly rejected by the legitimate scientific community — and virtually every living Ethiopian.

The reality is that an Ethiopian king, a Black man, conceived these churches, chose the sites, directed the design and construction.  And an army of Ethiopian craftsmen, also Black men, took his vision and made it real.

Some folks just can’t handle that idea — and they’d prefer that you not embrace it, either.

But that’s their problem.

We are descended from great people, and the seeds of their greatness remain in us, in you.  In Lalibela, that fundamental truth is literally set in stone.

Which is why, if you are a Black American — or a Black anyone — you need to see these churches. Your children and your grandchildren need to see them, be inspired by them, and know that these miracles of faith and architecture are part of their DNA.

So the next time someone tries to make you feel lesser than you truly are, you won’t need to repay insult with injury. Just point them the way to Lalibela.

IF YOU GO
Getting to Lalibela means flying to Ethiopia.  Several international airlines fly to the capital, Addis Ababa.  The national flag carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, is Africa’s largest airline, and highly respected worldwide.

You reach Lalibela by road or air.  The drive from  Addis will take 13 hours to two days, and is recommended by almost no one.

The flight from Addis  takes two hours, with a stop in Bahir Dar or Gondar, another of those World Heritage sites (the return flight is non-stop.) From the airport, it’s a short, gorgeous mountain drive to Lalibela.

Hotels in Lalibela are Motel 6-basic, but if youcan score a balcony room, you may not care.

The site is open daily 6 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is US$50 for adults and $25 for children ages 9-13. Your ticket is good for five days, so no need to try to see all 11 churches at once.

Get yourself in shape — and your kids’ behavior in shape — before you visit. This site is 8,500 feet above sea level, long on climbs and short on guardrails.

A good guide can make your visit unforgettable. A bad one can ruin it. Go to the Lalibela tourist office and hire a licensed guide. They may cost you between 200-400 Ethiopian birr per day —  roughly $9-18.


Tours of historic Ethiopia — including Lalibela — are available through Trips by Greg LLC. For more information, contact us as info@tripsbygreg.com

The birth of a traveler

Do you remember the day you became a traveler?

Every traveler has a story. Big deal, right?. Every traveler has thousands of stories, a verbal slideshow of every place they’ve ever been. And if you’re not careful, they’ll inflict every damned one of them on you in one sitting.

Those aren’t the stories I’m talking about.

I’m talking about that special story every traveler has, the one they may not share with everybody. It’s the story of the trip that changed their lives forever.

The one that made them travelers.

I was six on, a cross-country train trip with my mother from New Orleans to Los Angeles aboard the Sunset Limited.

I’d taken a train journey before, from Chicago aboard another famous train of the time, the City of New Orleans. But in my young mind, that one didn’t count since I remembered almost none of it, having slept through virtually all of it.

A mistake I was determined not to make aboard the Sunset Limited.

Which explains why, from the moment our sleek train of passenger cars in their fluted aluminum skins began to glide away from the platform at New Orleans Union Station, my little head was swiveling back and forth like a windshield wiper — 180 degrees, left, right, left, right. Determined to see out of both sides of the train at the same time.

All things are possible when you’re six.

We rocked and rolled west out of the NOLA, over miles of seemingly endless bayou, flanked by tall cypress trees. They stood mute and resolute in a sea of motionless water covered by a layer of bright green algae, thick as icing on a cake. Spanish moss hung from their limbs like a grandmother’s shawl.

Many hours later, somewhere west of Houston the cypress gave way to cactus and bayou swamp to desert sand and rocks. Dry, A hard, harsh land. To the eyes of an unknowing child, a dead place.

Sleep is the implacable enemy of a 6-year-olds. It infiltrates under the cover of night, silent, insidious, relentless. All too soon, the eyelids fall without your knowledge or consent.

This time, though, something woke me up in the middle of the night.

It was maybe two in the morning. The passenger car was dark and silent. There was more light outside than within. A ghostly cast from the moon and stars covered the land like a smooth, thin crust of snow. It draped the rocks and the cactus the way the Spanish moss draped the bayou cypress we had left behind.

Somewhere out there was a horizon, but it was hard to tell where it was. Could this be where true desert life was hiding? Were there ghosts behind the rocks, waiting to dance in the moonlight once we had passed?

Without warning, the earth fell away. Not the ground. The planet. All below was perfect, infinite blackness. No shapes, no color, no bottom. Stars above, nothing below. Nothing. The Sunset Limited was racing over empty air.

Even at 6, I knew what gravity was, even if I couldn’t spell it. But gravity seemed to mean nothing here. How long could we keep this up before the abyss swallowed us whole?

I look around around the inside the car. Every soul was asleep. I had impending oblivion all to myself. At first, I prayed it would end. Then, overwhelmed by the sheer wonder of it all, I prayed that it wouldn’t.

Decades later, I would learn that we had crossed the Pecos High Bridge, a few miles outside Langtry, TX. Half a mile long and almost 400 feet high. All of which looks like infinity at 2 in the morning.

Especially when you’re six.

What other incredible sights were out there beyond the horizon, beyond the reach of this train, waiting to grab my imagination and run away with it?

I didn’t know it then, but that was the moment I became a traveler. Fifty-nine years, five continents and 30 countries later, I’m still trying to see out of birth sides of the train.

See you on the bridge.

Do you remember the experience that started you on the traveling life?  Share it here on IBIT!

I never really left…but I’m back, anyway!

After some months of upheaval, confusion and long periods of awkward silence, that which is old is new again here at IBIT. 

I’m still old, but as longtime readers can easily tell, the blog is new.

Greg Gross
Greg Gross

That’s partly because IBIT is sporting a fresh new look, and partly because — *drum roll* — the old IBIT is dead and gone. Literally. All of it.

It’s a long, annoying story that I will not bore you with, simply because I refuse. So don’t even ask.

If I seem strangely sanguine and serene about the reality of eight years of toil, tears and joy vanishing forever into the digital ether, it’s because…well, I am! I’m not even mildly upset over it.

This is a time for new beginnings, starting fresh.

You long-time IBIT readers out there — and we both know who you are! — welcome back. I’ve missed all my digital travel podnuhs out there.

If you’re new to this blog, get ready to laugh a lot and to learn a lot — not because I know a lot, but because I’m going to be learning right along with you, as I have been since I started this blog in 2009.

Basically, I’m following the advice of Negro League pitching great Satchel Paige, who famously said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

He was right. So from this point on, IBIT and I only have one button: Fast-Forward.

And I’m pushing the hell out of it.

So please return your seat backs, tray tables and flight attendants to their full, upright and locked positions, because IBIT is taking off.

Again.