Rock of All Ages ; in the Mountains of Ethiopia Is One of the World's Greatest Mysteries: 11 Stunning Christian Churches Buried Underground and Hidden in Secret Caves. Peter Stanford Unearths the Extraordinary Story of Lalibela, the Town Now Hailed by Western Pilgrims as `Africa's Tibet'
Stanford, Peter, The Independent (London, England)
Some churches like to trumpet how they have stood firm against the whims of the outside world. Greek Orthodoxy, for example, maintains that it has the same liturgy now as it did in the 4th century, while Catholicism boasts that the popes never change their minds on doctrine. Believers though are, at heart, fickle followers of fashion.
Just as we desire the latest gadget which will, allegedly, make our life complete in this world, the history of organised religion is the story of how we have constantly craved new sources of spiritual enlightenment about the next world. In recent times this headlong rush has brought many in the West to Eastern religions, with Tibetan Buddhism having a particular allure - ironically because it seems to be the very antithesis of consumerist values. But the leaders of the pack have now moved on to the next big thing. Ethiopia, they tell us in countless travel advertisements and on websites for the spiritually challenged, is "Africa's Tibet".
While the south of the country is the birthplace of Rastafarianism, it is an ancient town in the northern highlands that is the most popular destination with 21st-century pilgrims to Ethiopia. A bumpy 10-hour bus journey from Addis Ababa through countryside where the way of life has changed little over three millennia - thatched villages, shepherds, terraced fields, simple irrigation schemes, donkeys - sits Lalibela, 2,500m above sea level. Here, 11 extraordinary subterranean churches, routinely referred to by locals as the Eighth Wonder of the World, are carved out of the sloping mass of mauve volcanic rock. While some of the churches are housed in a labyrinth of tunnels and crypts, galleries and grottoes, the most spectacular stand three-storeys tall, with elaborate geometric carvings on their exteriors, surrounded by the perpendicular walls of vast pits, their roofs flush with ground level.
However it is not only the uniqueness of Lalibela's architecture that is attracting Western spiritual tourists in ever growing numbers. Its greatest assets are its continuing air of mystery and that it appears caught in a time-warp. Lalibela's rituals are carried out in the ancient Ge'ez language which, rather like Latin, is today used only in churches. Unlike at so many other pilgrimage destinations, in Lalibela there is the sense that you are simply observing what is an ancient and valued local celebration rather than a spectacle put on for visitors. The onlooker is a guest but cannot understand or participate.
This element of voyeurism is particularly true during the festival season of Timkat. Being Orthodox, Ethiopian Christians use the Julian calendar which, as any bookish schoolboy will tell you, is 13 days behind the Gregorian one which has held sway in other walks of life since the 16th century. So in Lalibela, Christmas comes when we in the West are taking down our decorations on Twelfth Night, the Epiphany. But having been behind the pack in marking Christ's birth, Ethiopia's Christians steal a march when it comes to his baptism, and it is at Timkat, just 12 days after Christmas, that they re-enact it.
The start of Christ's official mission on earth, as it were, is for them more important than the moment of his birth, and so Ethiopian Christians believe that at least once in a lifetime you should travel to Lalibela for Timkat. And since medieval times they have been journeying to their own Mecca. Many are poor farmers who walk for days, eating little and camping out in the cold air that, even in summer, cloaks the mountains each night. On arrival, for these travellers who will seldom if ever have seen so much as a large town, the extraordinary buildings at Lalibela are nothing short of miraculous, a glimpse of heaven on earth.
The festivities start on Ketera, the night before Timkat itself, when the Tabots, replicas of the two tablets containing God's laws as handed down to Moses, are removed from the altars of each of the ancient churches and carried by priests and pilgrims to a vast tent, close to a consecrated pool, next to a gorge known as the River Jordan where the devout will spend the whole night in prayer and fasting. …