Tag Archives: Lalibela

Bye Bye, Lalibela

After touring Lalibela I returned to my luxury hut, drank a couple beers, and scrolled through a week’s worth of Facebook posts.  One of them was by my son, Vince, who was announcing to his 263 friends that he would undertake a project to remove some of his tattoos and replace them with new ones—to the tune of $4,000 over the course of a year.

Ugh.  Tattoos are, in general, a divider between Baby Boomers and younger generations.  To me, they are a total waste of money.  $4,000 would pay for a very nice European vacation.  It would buy a good used car.  It could even go toward a down payment on a house.  A very small house.

But it’s his money and his body.

By 10am I was gazing up at the light as I was about to switch it off, and it was a new experience for me to sleep under a light shade with a face on it.  As a bonus nightmare-inducement, it also featured a swastika.

I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep, finally.  But that was not to be.  Again, there were the roosters and the donkeys.  Again, at around 4am, the chanting started.  But also again, I was fortunate to have ear plugs.  When I woke up at 7am, they were still chanting and I could see worshipers in white gauzy robes wending their way up the hill toward Lalibela in the distance.  It was Sunday, so there would be services, and I wondered if the chanting would go on even longer than the four hours it had run the previous day.

I went down to the dining hut and drank a good cup of coffee while I waited for my ride to the airport.  The only other occupants of the room were two Israeli guys who looked like absent-minded professors, with wild shaggy hair, long beards, and thick, 80s style glasses.  I came to believe that they were professors of religion and/or history and would have all the answers to my questions.  But no matter how blatantly I stared at them, they never looked my way but kept talking loudly in Hebrew.  Well, loud is the only volume Israelis speak at, in my experience.

Finally I got up to leave, and that got their attention.  I said hi and asked if they knew how many Jews had been in Ethiopia at the time Lalibela was created—my guide had said Ethiopia was “mostly Jewish” at that time?

They scoffed and said no, that was not correct; there were “only a few million” Jews in Ethiopia at that time.  That didn’t sound right either—how many people could there have been all told in Ethiopia 800 years ago?  But their accents were so heavy I just smiled and left rather than press for clarification.

And so 18 hours after my arrival, I was driven back to the Lalibela airport, with the by-now expected young boys in the back seat for the ride.  I flew to Axum, where my driver was waiting to take me back to Shire.  But first, he swung by the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.  This is where the arc of the covenant is supposedly kept.  As a woman, I was not allowed to enter.  However my driver pointed out some steles across the road from the church and said, “Italians take.  They break.  We make them give back.”  That’s all I know about that.

The driver had tapped out his English, so for most of the one-hour drive I gazed at the rows of stone shacks along the road, maybe 12 by 12 feet in size, and thought I would go insane in five minutes if I had to live in one.  But so many Ethiopians were born, lived their entire lives, and died in these shacks.  They were home, and as long as there is love in a home, that’s the most important thing, I guess.

Vince, when you read this, you know I don’t “get” tattoos but I’m glad you’ve got a project you’re excited about that doesn’t involve drugs, gambling, or theft.  I’m just so glad you’re home.


I was breathless as I tried to keep up with my guide, Tesfaye, as he hopped from boulder to boulder up a steep “path” to Lalibela, where we would go back in time 800 years.

I realize I haven’t actually said yet exactly what Lalibela is.  It’s a complex of Ethiopian Orthodox churches that were carved out of stone during the 12th and 13th centuries at the behest of the Emperor Lalibela.  It would be the latest in my world tour of ancient sites I had unintentionally visited over the last two years.  Others included Petra, in Jordan; the Tarxian temples in Malta, Tikal, in Guatemala; and Stonehenge, which I’ll get around to writing about eventually.  During my Latin American phase 10 years ago, I went to Machu Picchu and loads of pyramids and temples in Mexico and El Salvador whose names I can’t recall.  Prior to that I had been to Israel, where you practically trip over an ancient site every time you turn around.

I don’t believe in god and I struggle with the concept of a higher power.  I am constantly thinking about death and seeking some kind of meaning or purpose to living.  I’ve written before about how I find life worth living when I interact with children, am out in nature, or am appreciating the beauty of art, architecture, a garden, classical music, etc.

I have also experienced meaning at ancient sites.  Not all, but some.  I spent two full days in Petra, hiking in its silent, barren wilderness.  And I felt profoundly moved.  This will probably sound really “woo woo,” as my Native American relatives would say, but I felt a connection to the people who had lived there.  Not like I sensed their ghosts, exactly.  But I felt awe that they had built this place and it was still intact, and people like me were still here wondering about them.

I had my most moving experience at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, which like Petra is around 2,000 years old. There a multitude of faiths represented, people in costumes that looked like they were straight out of Hollywood central casting—Jews, Muslims, Druse, Christians of every denomination—nuns, monks, imams, Hasidim, people wearing turbans, yarmulkes, tall conical hats, and fezzes.  I was on a tour with 175 other Jews from Minnesota.  We were herded to the wall and I tucked a prayer for my son, Vince, inside one of the cracks.  I believed in God back then.  Vince was on the lam with drug and legal problems, and I was desperate for anyone or anything to help him.  I closed my eyes and leaned in to pray, and I felt a tremendous physical sensation like a “whoosh”—as if a vortex of everyone who had prayed there over the millennia were carrying my request upward.

Then I heard someone calling my name: “Anne, Anne, we’ve got to go.”

It was our tour guide, Moshe.  “Can’t I have a few more minutes?”

“It’s been 20 minutes!” he replied.

Twenty minutes!  It had felt like five.

Other places have been “meh” experiences or just interesting for their historical significance.  I think it must have more to do with my own state of mind than anything else.

My colleague who had urged me to visit Lalibela had said she found it deeply moving, much more so than Petra.  So I wondered how it would be for me.

After about 15 bureaucratic steps involving buying a ticket then having it inspected and stamped by three people, Tesfaye and I were in.  And it was amazing.

Tesfaye told me that the churches were built in the 3rd to 5th Centuries, which conflicted by about a thousand years with what I see on Wikipedia.  He also told me that most Ethiopians were Jewish back then, which doesn’t square with the Emperor, a Christian, building all these Christian churches.  Then there was the part about the Portuguese visiting Ethiopia in the 17th Century to try to convert them, and that 800,000 people visit Petra each year while only 25,000 visit Lalibela.  Not sure about any of that.

In fact, he talked so much that there was no space to feel moved.