A thousand years ago, King Lalibela of Ethiopia, helped by angels carved twelve magnificent churches out of the ground beneath his feet in a single night. He dug down into the ground and from solid rock carved each church before hollowing out the centre. That is how the legend goes, which our guide vehemently believed. And despite their architectural wonder it is the belief of these churches, belief of Christianity amongst the Ethiopians that brings these buildings, some of the oldest in Africa, alive.
It is 4:30am the following day and we wearily follow our guide in the cool night air once again to the churches. It is Sunday and Mass is about to start. People have travelled from afar to be here for Sunday Mass. There are twelve churches to choose from but we opt for the largest one. “You can see the Lalibela Cross in this church!” our guide exclaimed, eyes glowing. “You can be blessed by the cross, you can only see it on Sundays. You are very lucky.” The sleep shrugged off us as we sped up trying to keep up with him, his pace unaffected by the 2500m altitude the town sits at. The road is peppered with other worshippers, their heads, like ours, wrapped in white scarfs, all heading for the churches. A couple of opportunistic street vendors sell candles and wicks. Our guide buys a few, and a few more seeing that we weren’t buying any of our own. We soon found ourselves in a cut out rock alleyway and the narrow bottleneck opened into the narrow perimeter of the largest rock hewn church. It’s imposing structure, three storeys high and recently restored by UNESCO is an incredible feat of engineering. Pillars and windows and rooms, all carved out of single rock.
The place is full of worshippers: Ethiopians, of all ages, families with sleep-zombie children, grandmothers and old men. We have to push through to keep up with our guide and slipping off our shoes that are instantly swallowed into the sea of shoes already existing we push our way through up the worn stone steps into the inside of the church. It is packed, white scarves framing black faces everywhere. People are gathered around the altar, taking their positions for the mass to start. On the left hand side there is another centre of attention where the crush of people is the strongest. “Come!” Our guide says before disappearing into the crowd. We follow his general direction, pushing through, before finding ourselves on the edge of a large circle. In the centre is a priest, his gold threaded robes heavy on his body. In his hand he holds a large ornate cross “The Lalibela cross” Our guide whispers, excited. A queue of people crowd the priest and he walks around the edge blessing the believers with the cross. He wipes it across their chest, arms and back. He pushes the top of the cross to their forehead before offering both the top and bottom of the cross to kiss. Babies are brought before him; they too wrapped in a white scarf and have the cross wiped over them. The queue was long, up to a hundred or more people waiting to be blessed before the start of Mass. Instead of waiting we retreated and pushed our way to the front of the church where the Mass would be given. Women on the right, men on the left, we took our requisite places and waited. We were the only foreigners in the building.
Within a few minutes it began. Priests came out of the curtain blocking of the Holy-of-Holies from prying eyes and started the Mass. The Mass, given in Amharic gave us no clue to what was going on. On cue we stood and we sat. I chanted, when the congregation chanted, of words that I could not pronounce or understand.
The priests went in and out of the curtained off area many times, one held an ornately decorated umbrella, another waved around burning frankincense towards us. They chanted and read from the Bible, disappeared behind the curtain and started once again. The Mass lasted two hours and my legs grew weary. What looked like long walking sticks with a flat handle that had baffled me earlier now made sense. The men used the sticks now as a rest hanging their weary bodies on the leaning stick.
Watching all of this unfold I was transported to another world, a thousand years ago where these churches were being used in exactly the same way*. For a thousand years Mass has been performed here each Sunday unchanged. I could feel myself in a time machine for those two hours, a thousand years of history whizzing by hurtling towards the modern day.
As we emerged from the church once the Mass had ended, the sun had risen and we were indeed once again in 2016.
That is where the real magic of these buildings lies – in it’s belief.
*Excusing the atmosphere destroying fluorescent tube lighting.