Our dream image of Lalibela on Easter Sunday? Swaying among white-clad worshippers and chanting priests. Reality hit hard! Worshippers, having fasted for three days, covered every inch of the churches’ floor, sleeping off their hunger and thirst. Wrapped into their large white shawls they looked like corpses. So Sunday evening there was no way to get in. The churches may look huge from the outside, the inside is very compartmentalized and some parts are strictly reserved for priests.
The chanting priests did not let us down, though. Inside and outside the churches, they preached in Ge’ez. This ancient language, long extinct, is now only used by the Coptic-orthodox clergy. Other priests immediately translated into Tigrean, for whom we wondered… Most worshippers were asleep and the tourists certainly could not follow the bilingual mess.
For us this was an unforgettable image: standing in this huge ditch in front of an ancient church in the middle of the night, with flickering candles as only light, listening to the monotonous praying. Even though most people were asleep, the devotion was comprehensible by the sheer masses. That some not so tired youngsters were quietly playing modern music on their mobiles gave it the perfect humane touch.
Luckily we also had the time to visit the churches during day time when only few worshippers congregated there. Not so lucky we were with our guide, at least compared to all the others we had. This one was unenthusiastic and always on the phone, so at one point we told him that we would continue by ourselves. Our impression was that the better hotels have agreements with the better guides.
Legend says that King Lalibela returned from Jerusalem with the order to build a second Jerusalem. And so he did! Churches, as high as three-story-buildings, were hewn deep into the reddish colored rock, connected by short tunnels. Little cave-like chapels were carved into the walls. Is there a better place to worship?
How long did it all take him? Exactly 23 years! Not a day more or less… Not bad for the 12th century! But please note: the worldly laborers were supported by the angels to speed up this work. Upon looking at this out-worldly architecture, even the most skeptical person may come to think: sure, why not?