Sacred Ethiopia: Lalibela and Aksum

The one benefit of not having enough Internet access to post these blogs while I was traveling is that I can organize them more thematically, instead of just going through places in the order visited. Thus, this post skips over my trip to the Simien Mountains National Park, which was my next step after Gondar, to focus on the two historic sites remaining, Lalibela and Aksum (don’t worry, there’s plenty to talk about with the national parks in the next post).

Unintentionally, I had arranged my trip so that I essentially went back in time through Ethiopia’s history, jumping from modern Addis Ababa to the 17th century castles of Gondar, to the 12th century capital of Lalibela and the even more ancient Aksum.

Lalibela today is a small community, approximately 40,000 people isolated amid soaring mountains reachable only by dirt roads. Yet during the 11th through 13th centuries, this isolation provided the perfect defense for the capital established by the Zagwe dynasty under King Lalibela. Inspired by a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the news of Jerusalem’s capture by Muslim armies during the Crusades, Lalibela began an ambitious program to make his capital a new Jerusalem, and a holy city for all Christians. The result of this vision was the construction of eleven churches hewn out of solid rock, surrounded by biblically named natural features such as the River Jordan and Mount Tabor. These churches, so intricately designed and complexly engineered that Ethiopians believe they were partially built by angels when the humans stopped working during the night, are each different and each dedicated to a specific religious figure. Still in extraordinarily good condition (even though the roofs built by UNESCO detract from the scenic beauty), the churches are the main tourist attraction of Ethiopia and one of the most well-preserved historic sites in sub-Saharan Africa, most prominently the cross-shaped Bet Giyorgis (St. George’s). During the holy days of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (which do not necessarily align with their corresponding festivals in Western Christianity, as Ethiopian Orthodoxy follows a distinct calendar) these churches are swarmed with pilgrims from across the country – however, arriving approximately two weeks after Ethiopian Easter, the churches were largely deserted except for a few other foreign tourists and the priests. These churches generally lack the interior paintings found at the Lake Tana monasteries, though carvings along the walls and windows still have Christian symbolism and the experience of worship in the stone churches is quite distinct (if the stone floors make walking and kneeling admittedly a bit uncomfortable). Several of the churches today likely served other roles, such as palaces or storerooms in the past, providing some rationale for the many differences in design. My visit to Lalibela also included a side trip to the Yemrehana Kristos church a ways north of Lalibela in the countryside. This church, from the 11th century, predates the churches of Lalibela by almost a century. While the architectural links between the churches are clear, Yemrehana Kristos is unique in that it was built inside a cave, instead of carved out from the ground. This church became a pilgrimage site for many dying worshippers, whose mummies still fill the back of the cave in a rather macabre display of devotion. Unfortunately, for all of the tourism and pilgrimage to Lalibela, it is difficult to see a positive impact in the community, which is still quite poor and unexceptional beyond the cluster of churches.

After Lalibela I continued the Christianity theme by flying north to Aksum (often spelled Axum, especially when as a historical reference). Aksum is the heart of Ethiopia’s Tigray population, and is within sight of the bitterly contested border with Eritrea, also primarily Tigray. Also mountainous but drier than the cities I had previously visited, Aksum has an outsize importance for its small size (approximately 80,000 people). Long before the year 0, Aksum and surrounding communities were the center of Ethiopian civilization, and the growth of the Aksumite Empire in the first millennium AD, when it controlled most of the Horn of Africa as well as Yemen and parts of Sudan, left a profusion of historical relics. Foremost among these are the stone obelisks (stelae) dotted around town, especially in the Northern Stelae Field. The progression from uncarved, unraised stones to small uncarved raised stones to the massive carved raised stones (of which only three remain, the fallen Great Stela, the Rome Stela captured and returned by the Italians, and the King Ezana’s Stela (which is currently held up by scaffolding) is clear in the small field, which also contains the tombs of local notables the stelae were placed here to mark. The adoption of Christianity by Aksumite King Ezana (whose stone marker inscribed in the Aksumite Ge’ez language, Greek, and Sabaean [Yemenite] can be considered the Ethiopian Rosetta Stone) caused a conflation of the Aksumite ruins with biblical stories in later years – Aksum claims the palace and bath of the Queen of Sheba, the tomb of King Bazen (Balthazar), one of the Magi, and most importantly the Ark of the Covenant.

According to Ethiopian legend, King Solomon had a son with the Queen of Sheba. This son, Menelik, who was the founder of the Ethiopian royal lineage, traveled to Jerusalem to visit his father and on his return took the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple and carried it to Ethiopia, where it has remained ever since. Now held in a small chapel between the St. Mary of Zion churches (one from the 17th century, one from the 1950s) inaccessible to all except one monk, the presence of the famous relic here makes Aksum the holiest site in Ethiopian Orthodoxy. Only the monks can say if the true Ark is actually in Aksum, but with no other would-be Arks elsewhere in the world as yet, this mystery does not stop Ethiopians’ faith in their country’s possession of this most powerful of biblical objects.


Due to this claim to religious fame, Aksum is also surrounded by monasteries and rock churches, such as the hilltop monastery of Abba Pentalewon, offering views across town, north to Eritrea, and into the moonscape of the Adwa Mountains in the East, where Ethiopia won its famous victory against Italian invaders on March 1, 1896 (now an Ethiopian holiday). The importance of the Tigray region has continued into present day Ethiopia, as it was the epicenter of resistance against the Communist Derg and its inhabitants were disproportionately represented in the governments that followed the civil war – perhaps the reason for the better condition of Aksum as compared to many of the smaller Amharic and Oromo cities I passed through.

Ethiopian Orthodoxy is a far more powerful part of Ethiopian culture than Christianity is even in more religious countries such as Russia or Latin America, let alone the largely non-religious West. Ethiopian Christianity dates back to King Ezana, Aba Salama (Frumentius) and the Nine Saints in the 4th century AD, though the church claims an even older descent, to the Ethiopian official baptized by Philip in the Bible. On holy days Ethiopians will wear white ceremonial robes and spend much of the day in worship – the day I left Gondar was St. Michael’s Day, and starting at 3:00 in the morning sermons were blared by loudspeaker across the town for at least six straight hours, similar to the Muslim call to prayer. Ethiopians particularly venerate St. Mary and St. George, whose images are found in almost all churches, and spend much of the year abstaining from meat as part of a strict fasting regimen. The Ethiopian Bible, written in the ancient liturgical Ge’ez language, contains numerous unique books used by no other denomination. Yet despite this Christian fervor, modern Ethiopia is remarkably tolerant, as the third of the country which is Muslim (across all ethnic groups) coexists peacefully with Orthodox and Protestant Christians alike, and most still practice certain local traditions regardless of faith.


Ancient Bible in Ge’ez, Abba Pentalewon monastery

But after so many days seeing churches and castles, it was time to escape the small cities in Ethiopia’s nature – the focus of the last of my Ethiopia posts.