A 20-minute flight in a turboprop aircraft got us to heaven. Once we descended on the small stretch of tarmac etching its way between dizzying rows of low-lying hills and plateaus, green, as if from a fresh shower, we breathed a little easier. We were escaping a popular uprising against the ruling government that was brewing all across Ethiopia, but more so in Gonder, where we had found ourselves for the last two nights. It would be unfair to say we were worse off as tourists because of the “protests”. Other than tell-tale signs like shards of glass on the streets around the town square, and a four-hour road block just as we left Gonder to go to the Simien Mountains because violence had broken out in an unseen town, we did not encounter any aggression that would give away the politically tumultuous times. But we were advised to move on — word was out that more trouble was brewing the next day. We woke up at the crack of dawn and made a wild dash to the airport.
Coming from such an atmosphere of strife, Lalibela, nestled in the lap of the Ethiopian Highlands, brought Shangri-la to mind. The serenity one experienced came from the picturesque geography as well as a history steeped in religiousness. I had felt the air heavy with devotion once before, in Paro, in Bhutan. There, the constant turning of the prayer wheels and fluttering of flags made one giddy; here, the mood that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church — one of the few pre-colonial Christian Churches in Africa, dating back to fourth century AD — was going for was definitely sombre.
The 25 km to town opened up more mountainous sceneries dotted with adey abeba, the yellow flowers we had come to associate with the Ethiopian countryside and a new entry, tukuls, the round mud-and-thatch huts specific to the Lalibela landscape, often double storeyed.
After checking in, we decided to use the last of the daylight for a walk about town. A few hundred metres into our walk, the road got emptier and greener and we realised we had gone away from town. Soon, we were the only non-locals amidst little clusters of young people shooting the breeze. We walked on till we reached a circular clearing, like a natural viewing platform. We sat there dangling our legs into the gorge, imagining without much effort that we were at the edge of the earth.
The next day, we made our way to what we believed would be the highlight of an adventurous Ethiopia trip — the Lalibela church complex, a Unesco World Heritage site. We usually prefer to explore a place by ourselves, equipped only with literature about it. So, when Getu approached us, we refused his services immediately. But astutely, he began to describe the intricate network of tunnels and trenches, used for commutation as well as drainage, and we wavered. We started with Bet Medhane Alam, the largest monolithic church in the world.
The mysticism and harmony of Lalibela is most felt within this complex maze of churches. Even before you start marvelling at the architecture, you notice the devotees, covered from top to toe in fine white linen, leaning against the church walls as if for spiritual support, or quietly chanting prayers in corners. On auspicious days — there are many in Ethiopia, as in India — they fill every nook and cranny and make a stark picture against the red of the churches. The strength of their faith is easily explained.
King Lalibela, after whom the town is named, set out in the late 12th century to construct a “New Jerusalem” after an angel decreed him to do so in a dream. While he had been able to make the pilgrimage, during his reign, Muslim conquests had stopped Christian pilgrims from visiting the holy land. He set to replicate the original site, complete with renaming their river Jordan. He also started the task of carving 11 monolithic churches out of soft volcanic rock. These churches were not constructed upwards from ground level, but “excavated” from the top. Unlike the towering edifices monarchs are known to build to attain immortality, King Lalibela’s architectural wonders are tucked away from plain sight, unless one leans over the cubic pits which contain them.
Within the confines of Lalibela, faith is contagious. The churches took our breath away with their stately symmetry, tall arches and faded frescos as we navigated our way through the vibrant, mossy trenches and secret chambers. But Bete Giyorgis was a favourite. Tucked away in the hillside, further from the main complex which is divided by the Jordan river into two clusters of five churches each, it is shaped in the form of a cross and a photographer’s delight.
Towards the end of our visit, Getu, true to his promise, led us into a 60 m long tunnel without any artificial light. The passage, we were told, symbolised a walk through hell. A few metres in, we were engulfed in complete, utter, darkness, a blackness which makes it impossible to visualise light even in the mind’s eye. We were to navigate it with our right hands on the “wall” and the left hands touching the “ceiling”, crouching our way forward. Petrified as I am of the dark, I did not have to imagine too hard that I was in hell. So, when we ascended into the courtyard of another rock-hewn church, into the golden light that brightened up the surrounding greenery, it was even less difficult to exclaim, “We have found our way to heaven!”