Encountering God in the rock-hewn churches

January 16, 2014
8:07 p.m. local time
Red Chilli Rest Camp
Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda

I’m sitting here inside a “banda,” which is round one-room cabin with a thatched roof. Kitty’s and my banda is a luxury model, with an enclosed bathroom, a solar-heated hot shower, and two comfy beds, each with mosquito netting. A stray cockroach here and there is not a big deal. We just were watching a warthog grazing 10 yards from our banda door in the gathering gloom. The full moon is bright orange, discolored by the controlled burns taking place around us in the national park. We just had a lovely dinner with our safari companions — roast chicken and mashed potatoes.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t yet written about what’s happened over the last couple of days, so I”m going to jump back to Tuesday, January 14.

On Tuesday we were high up in the northern Ethiopian mountains in the town of Lalibella. As I’ve said before, Lalibella only has one claim to fame to the outside world — it’s the home of a unique collection of 11 churches cut out of solid rock. The churches include three types — a few are built into the side of cliffs. Several more are partially freestanding — two or three walls are freestanding and finished and decorated, but one or more walls are attached to the cliffs. But the most remarkable of all are the completely freestanding churches. At these four churches, 12th century workers dug a hole out of hard volcanic rock — a square hole of 100 feet by 100 feet or more — leaving a monolithic square of rock undug in the center. Then these workers, or others, literally excavated a church out of that square.

Just as Michelangelo said that the unworked slab of marble already contained David, and the sculptor’s work was simply to release him from his tomb, so the medieval Lalibela masons released entire churches from the rock, carving elaborate interiors, including vaulting, columns, and numerous classical decorative elements. I’ll add photos to these blog posts once I get back home, but they’re almost unbelievable. I have seen what master masons did at Wells Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. But European cathedrals were built up from the ground. At Lalibella, the churches were carved down into the ground, hollowed out, and decorated inside and out, all without room for error. On a difficulty scale, this is another order of magnitude.

On Tuesday morning, Kitty and I were met at our hotel at 9 a.m. by an unprepossessing forty-something-year-old man named Getaye Mengistie. Our innkeeper had hired him on our behalf; we had agreed to pay him US$30 for a daylong walking tour of the churches.

We started by walking up the hill toward the center of town and then down again toward the churches, which are below the town square on the hillside, and which are grouped in two clusters. The most impressive church of all, St. George’s, stands apart from both clusters.

Since the Lalibella airport was improved in the late 1990s, UNESCO has been pouring money and expertise into preserving and saving the Lalibella churches. One of the results of this is that sleek modern roofs hover high over most of them, shading them from sun and rain while still leaving them open to the air. Another result is that there’s now a steep entrance fee for visitors. You cannot visit any of the churches without paying a US$50 entrance charge, which is valid at all the churches for several days. I objected at first, because my guidebook hadn’t mentioned such a high price.

But the price was legit, and I received a recept as proof. Ethiopians are huge on recepts and always give an elaborately detailed handwritten receipt for even the most mundane of transactions. Receipts are written in triplicate; this country must be keep the worldwide carbon paper industry in business.

Over the course of the next few hours, Getaye took us through the first cluster of churches. On the exterior, they are impressive the way that Petra is impressive. But step inside and you immediately realize that the Lalibella churches are living houses of worship. A monk or priest occupies each one all day long — usually sitting in front of four- to six-foot paintings of the Madonna and Child, or St. George and the Dragon, which lean against the interior pillars of the church. The paintings usually stand adjacent to a floor-length curtain, hanging from the rocky ceiling, that marks off the public place of the church — the chanting area — from the Holy of Holies, which includes the Ark of the Covenant. (Aside from one church in Aksum that claims to protect the real Ark — the one that Harrison Ford was looking for — Ethiopian Christians understand that the Arks in their churches are symbolic of the one that formerly resided in the Jerusalem temple, and the tablets that the Arks shelter are symbolic of the tablets of the law that Moses brought down from Sinai.)

In each church that we entered we took off our shoes and walked on indoor-outdoor carpeting that had been laid inside, protecting bare feet from uneven surfaces. And there, in the half-darkness, would be a priest praying in the ancient Ethiopian language of Geez, or reading the psalms, or chanting, or sitting silently. Picture-taking was allowed. We’ll see if any of mine come out.

The first cluster includes six churches, and by the time we had seen four, we heard some chanting start. Getaye led us over to the last two churches of the first cluster, where young and old men were entering one of them, having taken off their shoes. While we sat outside the church, with our backs to the church wall, he explained theological education in the Ethiopian tradition, the complicated liturgical calendar that features monthy (not just annual) celebrations of major saints, and the various forms of ministry, including nuns, deacons, monks, priests, and cantors.

Inside the church, behind our backs, the cantors were soon in ful voice. Two drummer would beat out a rhythm, and then each of the two dozen cantors and priests that stood around the drummers, leaning against pillars and walls, would chant in unison, all the while shaking unusual cymbals in unison. In no way was this chaotic or charismatic, but it also was far more energetic and loud than chant in the Western Christian tradition, and it varied in tempo. The drum would occasionally speed or slow, and then all the cymbals would also adjust their tempo, and sometimes the voices would get louders or softer.

Getaye said that it was time to enter the church. Of course, once we stepped inside a room made of carved rock, the volume of the chant grew much louder. We pushed through to the other side of the church to a small door that led to another chamber. Getaye said that women were not allowed through the door — in all of Lalibella, this was the only time that Kitty was excluded. She stayed behind while I passed through the door. And when I entered, I saw that the curtain in the next room — the one that protects the Holy of Holies — had been parted, and there were several priests behind the curtain hovering over a thurible or two. One of the priests soon emerged, holding one of the thuribles. He looked young — not more than 30 — and he was exceptionally tall. He strode back into the other room, where the chanting continued.

A few minutes later, after snapping some pictures, I followed back to the main church, and there was Kitty holding a staff — the kind that nearly all men hold during Ethiopian church services. I had been told that this was simply practical — you can lean on your staff during the two-hour Ethiopian Mass, since there are no chairs in the churches. But I think that the staff is also one of the musical instruments that enliven Ethiopian worship. The drum and the cymbal are indespensible, but so is the staff. Beat a rhythm on the floor, or hold it silently, or lean on it. But you need your staff.

Kitty said that while Getaye and I had slipped into the men-only section, one of the chanters had seen her standing alone and walked over to her and handed her the staff so that she could participate. She interpreted this — rightly I’m sure — as a warm and unusual gesture of hospitality. And so we stood and listend for 15 or 20 minutes more, enveloped in the strong, earthy chanting of these Ethiopian Orthodox worshipers. It was so foreign, yet it was elemental, ancient, profound. Deeply and unapologetically Christian, yet like nothing I’d ever seen or heard.

I think that being a part of the worship at Lalibella will stand out as one of the highlights of this trip.

The day was growing hot as we finally left the church. We walked over to the main road and Getaye called us for a taxi to take us to the Seven Olives Hotel for lunch. There, on a terrace shaded by the namesake trees, we saw our Aussie friends from the previous night, and we asked if we could sit with them. And then, after an hour, Getaye reappeared. We were ready for the second half of our day.

First we walked down the hill to the Church of St. George, which stands apart from the rest of the churches. It’s the most-photographed of all the Lalibella churches, the only one that’s completely cruciform, and the only one without a UNESCO shelter protecting it from the elements. You get to the church by walking down into a long trench that gets deeper and depper before it ends in a tunnel. And then, suddenly, there you are — in a courtyard 60 feet below the ground, and in front of you is the detailed carving of a church built without brick or mortar or wood or slate — it’s just carved rock.

After visiting St. George’s, we tackled the second cluster of churches, and here’s where the afternoon became a kind of slog. There were pitch-black tunnels to walk through — one of them 75 yards long — and there were more paintings of St. George and of the Madonna. And there were more priests guading the Holy of Holies in each church. But until we got to the final one, it seemed a little like were ticking off boxes.

Finally, at the last church, I noticed that Getaye walked over to the priest and spoke to him, and the priest took out a cross from the folds of his robe. Getaye kissed it twice, once at the top and once at the bottom, and the priest said a blessing. I asked, “Is this your own church — the one where you studied to be a deacon?”

He said, “Yes. I was baptized in this church, and I was married here, and two years ago my daughter was baptized here. When I was a boy, I ran around this church and climbed up into the second floor. I knew every tunnel here, from playing.”

I really liked that about Getaye — his piety was real. He really knew his stuff — he knew the history of the churches, the various theories about their ages, the construction techniques. He also had a good general understanding of Ethiopian Orthodoxy, and when I asked detailed questions about seminary training, he had detailed answers. But most of all, I liked that he had the warm heart — his faith was real.

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