January Journal

Habesha Christmas
In the two and a bit years that we have been writing this blog, the more assiduous of you will have noted, amongst other things, that the Ethiopian and European (or Julian and Gregorian) calendars do not match. For instance, the Ethiopian New Year is celebrated on 12 September. However, Ethiopia is a largely christian country, and the big religious festivals happen around the same time under both calendars.
Here, they celebrate Genna (Christmas) on 7 January and Timket (Epiphany) on 19/20 January. This blog will be divided into 2 parts, one for Lalibela and the other for Gonder, since the photos (if not my commentary on them) are worth two entries. For those of you with a short attention span, just look at the pictures.
So, to start with Lalibela, another thing that regular readers will have noticed, when I (John) get my hands on this blog, is that my attitude to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is not unequivocally positive (spot the litotes). I may have mentioned the cacophony with which our sleeping and waking lives have been regularly punctuated for the last two and a bit years by the church’s escalating attempt to assert its supremacy over its religious neighbours/competitors (and Ethiopian minds). There are other factors, but this is probably not the place to explore my rising misecclesia (as far as I can tell, a neologism), which is not attributable to noise pollution alone, but many other egregious characteristics of organised religion, both here and elsewhere…
So with that attitude, why, you may ask, travel to Lalibela to watch (and hear) this climacteric of the orthodox year? Well, because though Christmas is a big deal in every city, town and community in Ethiopia, the ultimate place to witness it is Lalibela. And this was our third January in this fascinating country. And Barbara’s sister Pat and two very good friends from Toulouse were here, and you kind of want your visitors to experience something special. And the church complexes of Lalibela are, well – to employ a much abused superlative – awesome, with their eleven massive, yet almost etherial, sunken monoliths. If you want the history, Wikipedia can enlighten you.
This is pilgrimage time. Many Ethiopians come here for Genna, most on foot, many without shoes. In a country where most people don’t have much, these pilgrims are offered food and shelter along the way and at their arrival in Lalibela. Considering that it is one of Ethiopia’s prime tourist destinations, it has something of the feel of a one-hoss town – dusty, semi-paved streets, nothing much in terms of infrastructure and retail opportunities, though a handful of fairly smart – and at Christmas in particular – exorbitantly expensive hotels, many with fantastic far-reaching views. For the pilgrims, an empty area near the church complexes is turned into a camping ground. No four-season, erect-on-the-summit-of-Everest, kevlar fibre tents here. People wrap their cloaks around them and lie on the bare rock. They cook on fires, or on small charcoal stoves, as do most Ethiopians in their homes.
The atmosphere of anticipation and excitement was palpable. Those who live far away will probably make this journey only once. The desire for souvenirs and mementos seems to be a universal one, and ornate church umbrellas and crooks, crosses, clothes and images were spread around for sale. In the meantime, the first of the services was already underway, featuring the patriarch, head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and the famous gold Lalibela cross, stolen a few years ago but now recovered. Some Ethiopians looked around the churches; others, probably exhausted and hungry, claimed their place to settle down and rest until the night time services began. One suspects that the scene would have been pretty much the same anytime in the 900 years or so since the churches were built…
Pat, with the help of our guide, took the opportunity to find out how far people had come. The first girl, shoeless apart from a rag tied around her club foot, had arrived after 35 days of walking. Another family brought a Genna marvel: when our guide Hailu, an orphan, went over to interpret for Pat and a family she had engaged with and established which far-flung village they had come from, it emerged that they were relatives of his father, had known Hailu when he was a baby, but had lost touch when his father was killed during the overthrow of the Derg. A privileged moment of reunion to share.

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The cost of visiting the churches is $50 a head (for tourists). This is a lot of money, though for the serious explorer, it gives you access for 5 days. Plus the guide’s fee… Anyway, also not the place to discuss Ethiopia’s kill-the-goose approach to its fledgeling tourist industry… After previous will we/won’t we noises from the guide about evening plans, we were abruptly whisked away from dinner at Scottish Susan’s splendid folly, the Ben Abeba restaurant (another story in a country full of stories), to attend the evening services at Bet Maryam (literally, Mary’s house), thought to be the oldest of Lalibela’s churches. Dinner had included liberal doses of South African wine and, in my case at least, a digestif or two, so it was somewhat alarming to find that the congregation for the night-time service was gathered on the uneven cliffs overlooking the sunken church 10 metres below. When I say congregation, don’t get the idea of neat rows of pews – just people standing, squatting or lying wherever there was some spare rock surface, and the only light from flickering candles. If we stumbled, a friendly hand would reach out of the piles of white clad bodies to steady us and haul us back from what, in the dim light, seemed like the abyss…
It was frightening, but also awe-inspiring and strangely moving. Down below, in the vast pit of rock out of which the church was carved, the men in frocks chanted and danced and swayed and drummed and shook their rattles, and the seemingly random amalgam of rituals, along with its rapt and silent audience, temporarily became something more than the expression of an alien rite in this millennial theatre of hewn granite.

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The ceremony was set to run all night, but we made our way back to the hotel, lurching through the sea of bodies like paddlers on a reef, ready for the main event and a 5am start. This main event was, to me at least, something of a challenge. A return to the same place, an hour-long gradual press forward amidst a mass of standing people, alertness for the wandering hands of pickpockets, the inevitable power cut temporarily dousing the lights, nervousness about the possibility of stampede, loudspeakers blaring out words incomprehensible not just to us, but to all around us (since services are delivered in a language called Ge’ez, spoken only by priests), the gradual lightening of the sky, the final emergence of the men in frocks into the morning sun on the cliffs above the church… Dramatic, picturesque, spectacular.

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A final word: another memory amongst many is of the kindness to strangers – essentially voyeurs in one of Ethiopia’s holiest places and at one of its holiest times – of these masses of people. Apart from the steadying hands, there was the readiness to make way, to enter into conversation, the curiosity about us, the warnings about thieves, the helping word of translation, the humour and patience. Ethiopia and Ethiopians at their best.

Leave a comment


  1. Mary S

     /  27/01/2014

    What an extraordinary experience…

  2. Jill Weller

     /  29/01/2014

    Fabulous pictures and it brought it all back to me from when I visited earlier in the year – mind you there were not the sea of people that I see in these pics. Must have been a great experience. x


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