On the slopes along the main path, thousands of villagers and white-clad pilgrims are gathered, some with a yellow cross woven or sewed on to their back. A long procession of priests now marches past, divided into sub-groups, one from each of the churches of Lalibela and its surroundings. At the rear end of each group, white-clad young priests are dancing and singing, accompanied by rolls of drums and fanfares from brass horns. The priests are followed by hundreds of pilgrims and spectators.
The procession comes to a halt in a large square, where one of the priests gives a ceremonious speech, lasting about half an hour. Several times, we hear the name Iohannis being mentioned, in all probability referring to John the Baptist, who plays a significant role during Timkat. Among the white-clad Ethiopian priests, we notice a few European priests, wearing black clothes, some sporting high ’hat-box’ hats – one even a bowler. When the speech is over, the crowds disperse.
During the ceremony, dark clouds have gathered, bringing lightning and thunder, followed by pouring rain. We seek shelter in the hotel lobby, from where we can study the bird life in the hotel garden, comprising e.g. speckled pigeon (Columba guinea), the endemic banded barbet (Lybius undatus), the strange speckled mousebird (Colius striatus), which climbs about in the bushes with incredible agility, and an Ethiopian thrush (Psophocichla simensis), searching for worms on the lawn, just like the European blackbird (Turdus merula) back home.
Tewahedo means ‘unified’, referring to the Oriental Orthodox belief in the one single unified Nature of Christ, meaning that a union of the divine and human natures into one is essential to accomplish the divine salvation of humankind.
Timkat is the Ethiopian Epiphany, usually celebrated on January 19 (in leap years on January 20). This festival is best known for its ritual re-enactment of baptism, celebrating the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River. During one of the Timkat ceremonies, the Tabot – a model of the Ark of the Covenant, the Biblical chest which, according to The Book of Exodus, contained the two tablets, on which The Ten Commandments were inscribed – is wrapped in ornate cloth and carried in a procession of priests. It represents the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah, when he approached John the Baptist to be baptized. Around 2 a.m., the Tabot is carried to a nearby stream or pool, where a ritual cleansing of it is performed. Later, water is sprinkled on the participants of the procession. Some also immerse themselves, thus symbolically renewing their baptismal vows. (Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethiopian_Orthodox_Tewahedo_Church)
Lalibela houses a unique array of churches and monasteries, dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. Many of these churches are carved down into the bedrock, which is soft, red, volcanic tuff – Beit Maryam, Selassie’s Chapel, The Tomb of Adam, and Mashal Chapel, to mention but a few. The most striking of these churches is Beit Giyorgis, shaped like a cross. You enter this church by walking in an underground tunnel, or by using a ladder, which is leaning against the sheer rock wall.
Accompanied by a young guide, we walk through a maze of narrow alleys and niches, connecting the stone churches. It is indeed a peculiar feeling to walk around in semi-darkness, deep down between the tall, ancient buildings. Life here seems not to have changed since the churches were hewn out of the rocks. Some priests still live in small caves, which have been lined with sheep skins, to keep the priests warm during the cold nights. One priest is sitting on a sheep skin in the sunshine, absorbed in reading holy scripts.
We pay a visit to some of the churches, where we are welcomed by their priests. The interior walls are decorated with carvings and murals, depicting e.g. Saint George, killing the dragon. The churches also contain a large number of archaic artefacts, e.g. splendid crosses in gold and silver.
The processions of priests continue today, so we take our seats on a slope, from where we have a splendid view of the masses. The procession passes by just below, with plenty of drum rolls, horn-blowing, dancing and singing. People are happy and smiling, because this is a very important occasion: the annual cleansing of The Ark of the Covenant!
Late in the afternoon, we pay a visit to our guide’s home, which – like most other dwellings in Lalibela – is a humble, circular hut, with mud walls and a roof of corrugated iron. His mother serves coffee for us, newly roasted, newly ground, and newly brewed – good, strong coffee! While we enjoy this delicious drink, we are surrounded by the guide’s six smaller siblings, who smile and laugh and point at the strange foreigners. We feel very welcome!
A perfect end to a perfect stay in Lalibela.