Sunday, December 07, 2008

Lalibela and Gonder

From Addis we drove for two long and bumpy days (lots of Chinese road construction) north to get to Lalibela. Whatever you think Ethiopia looks like, forget it, you are wrong. It has to be one of the most visually misrepresented countries in the world (thanks to the NGO fundraising conspiracy). The people are not fly-covered and starving in the desert. It is green and very mountainous. Not forested but with agricultural fields, herders, villages and great views. I know I keep saying this but it really is one of the most beautiful countries. I will admit that it is mostly dry farming and with not many rivers (and those were pretty dry) so that with any drought they really would be in trouble. We had to go over passes of 3500m and the turn off road to Lalibela, in the right lighting was one of the most beautiful I've been on ever. On the way to Lalibela, in the mountains we also saw "bleeding-heart" baboons which are unique for the bright red patches on their chest.
Lalibela is a UNESCO world-heritage site because of it's rock-hewn churches. Lalibela was near the capital of an ancient kingdom that ended up leaving behind numerous churches in the area, all carved from the rock. Ethiopians are among the earliest Christians in the world, with some of their old emperors claiming descendance from Solomon and the queen of Sheba. They also claim Ethiopia to be the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. But their Christianity is Ethiopian Orthodox and is quite different from any of the others due to its very early origins and long separation from other Christian centres. They follow the old calendar, with 13 months and is 7 1/2 years behind ours. It is currently 2001 in Ethiopia, Sept 11th being the start of the new year. They don't eat meat on wed or fri, their crosses and art are slightly different, their churches are round, domed and colourful like other orthodox churches, and many holy sites are not open to females, including female animals!
To me Lalibela sounded like the most interesting site in Ethiopia to visit, especially as there are 11 churches right in the town and they are still in use. I was expecting the something akin to the great carved out temples in India, Jordan or China but apart from them also being cut out of rock, they were quite different. All other rock-hewn sites I've seen so far were cut into the side of a cliff and stood out majestically to be admired from afar. The goal of most religious structures is to impress the people through towering, awe-inspiring size. Lalibela goes completely against that. These churches are carved down into the rock so that you could easily walk by them without knowing they were there. Some are big, multi-storied affairs with pillars but it was always possible to see them from roof level by climbing up the rock around them. The gap between the rock and church is often no more than several feet so it feels like you could quite easily get a running jump right onto the roof of the church. A lot of the frescoes inside and any carvings done on the outside has been worn away so they are quite plain as well, usually. A few are more detailed and are the nicest. Inside they are dark but have little alters and the priests are usually kicking around somewhere as well. The whole site is just in the middle of town with no fencing so the locals can just walk through at any time while we were constantly asked to show our tickets at each church. There churches had been built in two main groups (though the most impressive one was separate) of 4 and 5 churches with lots of tunnels built into the rock to connect them. It was all quite nice and fun to be able to explore a site again and was exactly the kind of thing I've been missing lately.
From Lalibela we made it to Gonder on another very long driving day through more construction. Gonder was the capital of a much later kingdom and is referred to as Africa's Camelot. The royal enclosure with the ruins of a few palaces and structures from that time is also a world-heritage site. We spent a couple hours inside exploring the ruins (mostly just the empty shells of the buildings remain) and again had a great time. The buildings date back about 250 years and we didn't go see the other sites, like the royal baths and a few churches that were also nearby. We were supposed to meet Bre and Ben again in Gonder but decided to spend the night at Lake Tana nearby and have them meet us there. Lake Tana is famous for it's monasteries near Bahir Dar (which we didn't go to) and is also the source of the Blue Nile. We were camped out at a very and quiet and remote spot where we could enjoy the stars and the sounds of nearby hyenas. The road from there to the Sudan border was another painful one and although less than 300km, we got off to a late start and managed to successfully bush camp without getting mobbed along the way (we did wake up and pack with 3 guys staring at us the whole time though).
So with mixed feelings going in, I came out with mostly good feelings in the end. Ethiopia was not nearly as bad as I thought and I enjoyed what we were able to see. I suspect I'll be back there again some day and won't dread the thought of returning, though something really should be done about the hassle and rock-throwing in the countryside.


At 5:44 PM , Blogger The Bear said...

Hey Amon,
Great post, you truly are a hardened traveller. You shrug off what others crack under. Both posts appeared today, so was neat to read.
Tell Bre email is coming tonight, tell your Mom to get off her duff and write something!!!

As always, Love and Big Bear Hugs

At 9:27 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"International Studies" ;) Haha...this was really interesting, and super informative, and I should probably read your blog more often... Although, I do think you should eventually invest in paragraph indentations or something.

I'll just read this instead of my homework from now on.


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