LALIBELA, Ethiopia On the roads through Ethiopia’s highlands, traffic raises a brick-red haze that coats your clothes, powders your skin and starts a creaking in your lungs.
Despite the dust, people wear white. At churches and shrines white is the pilgrim’s color.
I wear it too, protectively: long-sleeved white shirt, tennis cap, Neutrogena sun block.
A pilgrim? Why not?
I’m here for something I’ve longed to see, Ethiopia’s holy cities: Aksum, the spiritual home of this east African country’s Orthodox Christian faith and, especially, the mountain town of Lalibela, with its cluster of 13th-century churches some 200 miles south.
Lalibela was conceived as a paradise on earth. And its 11 churches, cut from living volcanic rock, are literally anchored in the earth. In scale, number, and variety of form there’s no architecture or sculpture quite like them anywhere. Heaven seekers and art seekers are, in some ways, kindred souls, impelled to spend precious time and travel mad distances in search of places and things that will complete them.
The history of Ethiopian culture is deep, going back – if the national epic, the “Kebra Negast” or “Glory of Kings,” can be believed – to at least the 10th century B.C., when an Ethiopian ruler, the biblical Queen of Sheba, traveled to Jerusalem in search of the wisdom of Solomon. The two had a son, Menelik, who became Ethiopia’s first emperor.
Solomon, the story goes, wanted Menelik as his heir. But the young prince, with Africa on his mind, left Jerusalem behind. He did not, however, leave empty-handed. Secretly he took with him the Ark of the Covenant, which held the tablets given by God to Moses, in effect, establishing a new Israel in Ethiopia.
History, if that’s what this is, then fades until around 300 B.C., when a new empire coalesces in northern Ethiopia.
Aksum is its capitol, a still-existing group of immense stone stelae, carved with architectural features, its grand monument.
By the fourth century A.D. Ethiopia has become officially Christian, and the Ark is in Aksum, enshrined in a cathedral named St. Mary of Zion, where it remains.
Its presence makes Aksum the country’s holiest city, and St. Mary of Zion its holiest shrine, though materially both have seen better days.
The original cathedral was leveled by a Muslim army in the 16th century. Its modern replacement is a circular domed structure built by Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, in the early 1960s.
It’s a curious thing. Its wide, unbroken interior has the blank, functional ambience of a skating rink. Can this newish, nondescript, somewhat disheveled space really be the physical and psychic center of one the world’s oldest versions of Christianity?
A priest at the lectern burst into song, a long, gorgeous melismatic chant that bloomed in the dome. Everyone stopped to listen, enraptured.
There was the answer. Yes, it can.
The evidence was even stronger outside. I was in Aksum just before an important holy day dedicated to Mary, the object of acute devotional focus in Ethiopian Orthodoxy. Pilgrims from far and near were already gathering. A day later the city would be a sea of white, and St. Mary of Zion would be open and full. People were the completing ingredient.
By the 10th century A.D, new rulers, known now as the Zagwe dynasty, appeared. They kept the Judaic form of Ethiopian Christianity, with its Saturday Sabbath, and further promoted the concept of an African Zion by giving it physical manifestation in a new capital.
The force behind the new city was the 13th-century Zagwe emperor Lalibela, for whom the new capital came to be named. He is credited – and here we are again in a tangle of fact, fantasy and informed surmise – with planning and creating the 11 churches there, all chiseled directly from sandstone cliffs and gorges. According to legend the emperor himself, spelled by angels on night shifts, did the work. Whether the results can justifiably be called, as they often are, the eighth wonder of the world, they are certainly wondrous. And sharing, as they do, sculptured architecture that extends from Turkey to China, they are indeed world-spanning.
On St. Gabriel’s day the Lalibela church dedicated to the archangel who announced the birth of Jesus to Mary opens before dawn. Chanting, amplified by loudspeakers, pours out. Following a group of pilgrims, I go in.
The service, continuous for hours, is diffuse but enfolding. Priests and deacons huddle in an alcove, beating drums, rattling sistrums, doing a small-step, hopping dance. Nearby a priest massages worshippers with a hand-held brass cross; one bent-over man gets a full rubdown, one palsied woman a prolonged pacifying touch. Another priest rushes from behind the sanctuary holding flaming tapers in front of him like wands or prods. A third swings a silver censer in hazardous arcs in front of a painting: St. Gabriel with European features, Ethiopian skin, and pooling Byzantine eyes.
The choreography is ecstatic, sensually overpowering. To be in the middle of this is discomfiting.
What’s my role? What do I do? – then a release.
Just stand there.