Fanny and Florence are now visibly distraught and near panic. More people arrive. With the guide moaning on the ground every sense I have is telling me to get the girls out of this situation as quickly as possible. For the first time on the whole trip I see fear in the eyes of Fanny. What was just a few seconds ago a wonderful landscape now turns into a ruthlessly barren and alien place full of menace.
I become acuity conscious that our lives are quite literally depended on defusing the situation. The group of arrivals form a half circle around us. Grabbing Fanny and Florence’s hands I pushed my way through the circling mob. I tell the girls to start back to Williwaw and don’t stop for any reason.
Fanny to her great credit does not argue and starts the long haul back down to Williwaw. Returning to the mob I am beset with questions I can neither answer nor understand. The guide is now on his feet. The druid is pointing at him his howling bordering on hysteria. I selected the loudest of the group. Walking right up to him I muster all the force I can find I jab him in the ribs > He double over. The howling stopped.
The guide makes a vain effort to explain what is happening. “They are demanding that we wait till a decision is taken”. As you can imagine I am in no mood to hang around. Pushing the guide in front of me I once again break the circular and start after Fanny pushing the guide in front of me.
Waving to Fanny who is now several hundred meters further down to keep going we are followed by the mob. We make it to the first cluster of houses.
Fanny thank god has passed through safely and is now a good distance further ahead. Out of the blue one of the most bizarre things I have witnessed takes place. The guide has stopped and is on bended knee with a flat rock placed across the back his head. He is paying homage to the druid for clemency. The sourly bastard is enjoying the limelight. The bloke that I had walloped is less sure of himself as is the throng when I kick the rock off the guide head and once more start down towards Williwaw.
Away in the distance I can see that Fanny and Flo are almost back to Williwaw. We walk on. I explaining to the guide that when we get to Williwaw he is to demand that the druid, the little boy, and the bloke I had biffed are to accompany us to the nearest police station, where the matter can be sorted out.
The whole event however has one last heart fluttering moment before I make it to the Jeep. One of the mob leaves the group running across a few fields. He disappears into a house re-emerging with Kalashnikov not that I could see it the time – all I can see is that individual is approaching with a gun. I decide to use the same tactic I had used in the Gambia some years ago.
On that occasion Fannie and I were out on a deserted beach when out of the undergrowth a half a mile away we noticed a figure approaching. He was dressed in army clothing carrying a weapon. It was obvious that he was not coming in our direction out of curiosity. What I did then I now do once more.
Instead of allowing the individual walk towards me unchallenged I start to towards him. I knew that I was taking a calculated risk. My mind as in the Gambia is in a tangled of conflicting emotions. In the Gambia on our meeting the individual felt that he should say something. He asked me the time.
Here it felt like as if I was in some trendy animated move he shouldered the gun.
Arriving at Williwaw Fannie and Florence are cold and trembling. They are both obviously badly shaken. While opening the doors I point at the druid, the gun carrier, the boy and the loud mouth indicating for all of them to get on the roof. The Guide explains my intentions. Astonishingly they all clamber on top. The nearest police station according to the guide is just outside Mekele the capital of the Tigray forty kilometres down the road.
Explaining the plan to the girls we set off at speed, which is somewhat tricky for those on the roof. Calming down > the sky open soaking my passengers. Twenty minutes later I pull over into the front of the police station. While my non-paying fares get off the roof I enter the station. A young cop greets me in perfect English the best stroke of luck all day. Ordering the other out of the room he listens to my explanation of the situation without interruption.
Returning outside he takes the boy across a field behind the station. Twenty minutes pass by at ticking speed. He returns. “I will take care of these people you are free to go.” “The boy has confirmed that the priest attacked you.” “I am sorry I had to leave you here for so long but I needed to talk the boy far enough away so that he was not scared to tell the truth.” “As you do not want to press charges I will hold them for a while before they all walk back.” “What is the name of the church we were at?” “The church you were at is called Medhane Alem” “The young boy” “Teclay Alemayenu. “ Please give him that for his honesty and thank you very much for your assistance”
The lesson learned about the dangers of rapid change when one carries out ill-conceived tampering with the holies of holies, and the fragility of life we stop in Mekele for the night and to recoup.
Tomorrow in the province of Wolo it is the eight wonder of the world Lalibela a Druids strong hold perched high in the Lasta Mountains the home of Rock Hewn Churches.
Departing Mekele at 6am nothing could have prepared us better for such a wonderful day than yesterday. Vivid green fields glistened in the early morning watery sunlight. They are excessively set off by the surrounding mountains and at the same time there is a feeling that something else balances almost everything.
Lalibela is to our south one hundred and sixty odd kilometres over a road that is impassable to most traffic if it is raining. After yesterday we are not unnerved by the prospect. We stop in a small village named Betmara for an early morning tea. Williwaw abilities to handle the way ahead attract some considerable attention. Normally we would have no problem in giving a few souls a lift however the fact that we are still in Tigre all enquiries are turned down.
A few kilometres after Betmara the road with the breath-taking scenery around every hairpin begins to climb. Our progress to the next village Maychew is slow but invigorating. We have no inkling that we are in fact passing through one and the same spot that Ethiopia’s uninterrupted independence of centuries came to an end for seven years.
It is in these very hills around Maychew that the Italians (mainly due to their air power) defeated the Ethiopians in 1936.
Noon and not one vehicle had passed us in either direction. A small lake marked on our map as Lake Ashenge appears to our right. It has the effect of making the field’s greener and the surrounding hills more pristine. Our road is still climbing as we pass yet another village a look-alike for the last village. This is where we should turn off for Lalibela says Fanny. “Sekota is the next village.” We never see it but we do notice that we are now on the descent.
The track becomes rocker and slippery with an odd gushing stream rampaging across it here and there.
Although the driving requires moments of full attention we have no major difficulties to speak of. The fields give away to rocky out crops with a small river whose course we follow at first from a high, slowly descending to its level we eventually cross over it. Lalibela stays well hidden till the last moment.
Looking far from the eighth wonder of the world it appears perched 2630m up on a craggy slope. Its round stone houses look grey and bleak in the late afternoon shadows. The only give away that it is Ethiopia’s top tourist destination is a new road under Chinese construction and a new airport bearing witness to the fact that its days are numbered.
Slowly winding our way up a welcoming figure starts making its way down to the side of the road. He stands with his hand out to no avail, as we did not stop. There are some beggars that touch a nerve and others that don’t move one no matter how hard they try. In this case we all feel small for not having stopped.
No camping is to be had so we book into the recently built expensive Roha hotel. With the Hotel located some distance from the village our explorations will have to wait till the morning. No one is disappointed as the hotel has all the mod cons and after a long day and yesterday’s drama dinner and an early night is just what the doctor ordered.
Dawn brakes in Lalibela. It was once called Roha during the Zagwe Dynasty (10th century to the 13th century) getting its present day name from King Lalibela (1167 to 1207 AD) who ruler over northerner Ethiopia after the fall of the Aksumite Empire. It is he who had the 13 rock-hewn churches built over twenty-four years. They say it’s the 8th world wonder. It’s surrounded by a rocky and dry area where just in the raining period farmers grow their crops. One’s called Roha and the capital of the Zagwe Dynasty which ruled over Ethiopia from the 10th century to the mid- 13th century. It was King Lalibela who built the 13 rock-hewn churches.
|Like more episodes in the long history of this country, there are a lot of legends about this King. Rumour has it that a short time after he was born his mother saw a swarm of bee hovering over his pram. Instead of shouting holy fuck it’s the bees she cry’s Lalibela. Literally translated < the bees know he is to rule. Not before one his older brother poisoned him and during a three days sleep he was brought to heaven and showed the plans of the churches. A city of rock-hewn churches which he replicated. Returning to earth he set about the job in hand with forty thousand chisellers hacking away according to the legend for twenty-four years. Running out of time God sent help. A gang of bob the Angles builders worked the night shifts. It is said that they built one church ostensible in one night. The net result witnessed in 1520s by a Portuguese Mission the first Europeans to visit Lalibela were so flabbergasting that friar Francis Alvarez reporting back feared he would not be believed when he described what he found.
Others say that he did not go to heaven but went into exile to Jerusalem and got a vision to create a new Jerusalem because there is a small gorge called The River Jordan and there is a tomb of Abraham.
Others rumours tell that the Templars from Europe build it.
In one of the churches is a pillar covered with cotton. A monk had a dream in which he saw Christ kissing it. According to the monks, past, present and future is carved into it.
The churches are connected to each other by small passages and tunnels.
We resist the unavoidable guide. If we had taken a guide the impact of one on the most astonishing builds in the world would not have being as powerful. Leaving the hotel on foot we follow a small path along the inclining cliff face. Arriving on a solid rock right in front of us is a church.
Shaped in the form of a cross it looks like it is going to rise from the depth of its pit at any moment. Symmetrically perfect its beauty displays a just right harmony with its surrounding red volcanic sloping rock terraces. It remains almost totally hidden from view until we arrive at the very edge of the pit.
It is only when the realization sinks in that some bloke a long time ago pointed at the rock and said this is a good spot to start chiseling that one can appreciated the achievement.
Attached to the living rock it stands four floors high in the middle of the pit.
The roof is a relief of three equilateral Greek crosses inside each other.
Walking around the pit edge to the front of the church its scale 12x12x13m takes one breath away.
As with most renowned world stone structures one can only marvel as to how they were constructed in the first place similar to > The Pyramids, the Wall of China, Easter Island Statues, and the like.Imitating a built up structure Biete Giorgis (House of George) is well worthy of its world heritage listing. It has no trouble standing alongside any of the above. Rising out of a 25msq trench to twelve meters in high from a triple stepped support platform it has like most Ethiopian churches three west-facing doorways.
We find the entrance via a trench and tunnel. Its monolithic cruciform form hits us more powerfully at ground level. Entering the church by the front door a chipped out world of stone pillars, passageways, rooms, steps, windows, all adding to the riddle as to where has all the chiselled stone vanished. Not a mound of rocks is to be seen anywhere near the site. The elaborate arched windows designs caught our eyes.
Appearing like a ghost out of the shadows the druid arrives. Dressed in a white turban with a white cape his heavily white/black beard, prayer stick and cross glow in one of the shafts of window light. Purity personified.
We turn down the ten-dollar offer of a look at the churches crosses, crowns and Manuscripts preferring to mender on up the tunnel for a look at the other ten churches.
Biete Ammanuel (The House of Emmanuel)
Biete Libanos (The House of Abba Libanos)
Biete Merqorios (The House of Merquorios)
Biete Gabriel/Rufael (The House of Gebriel and Rufael)
Biete Meskel (The House of the Cross)
Biete Danagil (The House of Virgins)
Biete Madhane Alem (The House of the Redeemer of the World)
Biete Mariam (The House of Mary)
Biete Mikael (The House of Mikael)
Biete Golgotta (The House of Golgotta)
There is not room nor do I have the patience to describe them all here in detail. Each and every one has its own unique structure with or without Angle power. Photograph and studied extensively these days they all have their own web sites. All remain functional place of worship.
The tunnel leads to the largest and the most impressive of the above Beite Madhane Alem. Over 33 meters long 23 meters wide and 12 meters high its roof of solid rock is supported by 28 solid stone columns.
In a courtyard of its own it stands encased by stone pillars giving it a classical Greek Temple look. Restoration work with scaffolding and canopies hid the fact that it is the largest church of its kind in the world.
A partially restored tunnel leads to the next three. Biete Mariam the oldest of the group houses the original Lalibela cross. It’s smaller than Biete M Alem but still is a good 13 meters high. Heavily engraved it is more personal and charming. Next is Biete Meskel excavated from a bulge in the northern wall of Bet Mariam courtyard it has a window in the shape of a swastika giving one an eerie feeling of being watched.Then you have Bet Danaghil a little chapel in the south of the same courtyard. It is connected to the legend of the murder of pack of maiden nuns in the 4th century by a roman named Julian the Apostate other wise known as Emperor (361–363) Flavius Claudius Julianus.
Before you know it you are looking at Biete Mikael also known as Biete Debre Sina it goes halves with Biete Golgolta in as much that they share the same entrance within the same courtyard. Both also share a darkness of persistent atmosphere of inviolability. King Lalibela is supposed to be buried under the floor of Biete Golgolta, and the chapel of Selasie is within its walls. The tomb of Adam a cruciform hermit’s cell lies in this same courtyard.
On we go to the Biete Gebriel-Rufael any other one in a deep trench which we cross over on a rickety wooden bridge. It is small and bastion in appearance and is supposed to have clandestine tunnels under it.
Arriving near the end of the list Biete Abba Libanos built-in a vertical cave with only the roof connected to the original rock has an eternal self-powered light. This is the church built by King Lalibela wife with the help of bob the angles builders’ gang. A narrow tunnel leads of one of its walls to monastic cells.
Biete Ammanuel also small is said to be the Kings and his family’s private church. This one is more on the Axumite style. Finally at four thirty pm totally knackered and out of film Biete Merqorios a cave church or dungeon.
( To be Continued)
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