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in the
Beginning
ETHIOPIA IS HOME TO ONE OF THE WORLDS
OLDEST STRANDS OF CHRISTIANITY A TRADITION
THAT TRACES ITS ORIGINS TO THE TIME OF THE
OLD TESTAMENT. EXPLORE THE COUNTRYS EPIC
LANDSCAPES TO HEAR STORIES OF FEARLESS PROPHETS,
ATTEMPT DEATH-DEFYING CLIMBS TO MOUNTAINTOP
CHURCHES AND COME CLOSER TO THE ARK OF THE
COVENANT THAN INDIANA JONES EVER MANAGED
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Keshi Teklai Abreha, the
priest at the churchof
Abreha we Atsbeha. He
says the priesthood will
soon be inherited by his
son. Opposite Sunset
over the hills near Lalibela
WORDS OLIVER SMITH
PHOTOGRAPHS PHILIP LEE HARVEY
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Historians have dated the
frescoes at AbunaYemata
Guhto the 15thcentury,
though local traditiontells
that the church itself is at
least a millennium older
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One day in the 5th century AD, Father Yemata decided to take a walk
south from his home in Egypt. The Red Sea wind on his back, he
walked until the sands of the Sahara turned to the rich greens of
Africa. Here, among Ethiopias northern mountains, he founded
one of Christendoms rst churches, quarrying it out of the rock.
The church was known as Abuna Yemata Guh Guh meaning
dawn, for locals say it dates back to the morning of all time. Stepping
inside today, the church appears much as it ever has, painted
apostles watching each other through mists of incense, puddles of
melted candle wax on the oor and the wind sighing beneath the
little timber door. It is a place of the utmost sanctity and tranquillity.
That is, but for one small consideration taking just three paces
outside that same timber door means certain death.
Abuna Yemata Guh is a church like no other: perched at the top
of a vertical spire of rock, with sheer, 200-metre drops on all sides.
Father Yemata, it seems, liked a dose of extreme sports with his
divinity. Getting to the church means toehold climbs (minus ropes),
shimmying along narrow ledges, all the while trying not to look
down at drops prone to induce squeaked requests to go home.
I begin the walk up to Yemata Guh, and views of vast, Old
Testament landscapes unfurl to the horizon. Cloud shadows shift
across the farmland, and shepherds guide ocks over the stony soil.
At night they sleep in caves blackened by centuries of campres.
Admiring the view is, of course, a welcome distraction from the
nal and hardest part of the ascent, heaving yourself up a sheer,
six-metre-high wall of rock, like Spidermans less competent cousin.
The adrenaline rush of the climb makes stepping inside the church
all the more sublime, your pulse slowing and eyes adjusting to
the darkness, watching angels and archangels emerging from the
shadows. Quite why Yemata built his church here is unclear. Some
say it was to avoid raiders; other simply so he could pray alone up in
the clouds. Remarkably, corpses have been carried here to be buried
on the mountain; babies hauled up here to be baptised.
According to the priest, Kes Haile Silassie, in the 15 centuries
since Father Yemata climbed here, no-one has ever fallen off.
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Kes Haile Silassie, the
priest of AbunaYemata
Guh sits directly outside
the churchdoor
The story of Father Yemata
and his Church in the Sky
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The midday sun beats mercilessly on the mountaintop monastery of
Debre Damo, and Abba Tekle Haimanot sits in the shade of an olive
tree, whistling prayers through the gaps in his teeth, pausing to shoo
away a pair of ghting tomcats. Down below the world goes about its
business farmers tilling elds, people walking home from market.
He nods to the cliff edge. I have not been down the mountain for
two years, he says proudly. But this is not unusual. Some monks
here have not left for 30 or 40 years. There is no reason to leave.
Up here we are closer to heaven.
For most of his 70 years, Abba Tekle has been a monk at Debre
Damo: a three-hour drive north from Abuna Yemata Guh. He tells the
story of how the monastery was founded: the Archangel Michael
ordered a passing holy man to build a church on top of the mountain.
When the man found no way up, a huge snake uncoiled itself and
availed its services as a makeshift rope. Ever since, a small, self-
sufcient community of monks has lived at the summit, praying
through the night in a 10th-century church. It is one of the oldest
in Africa, and is adorned with depictions of the helpful snake.
The snake has since slithered off, but its symbolic replacement
might explain why few are in a hurry to descend. Getting here means
scrambling up a sheer 15-metre-high cliff, clinging to a straggly
leather cord as monks shout down enthusiastic, contradictory advice
on where to put your feet.
I was 17 when I rst climbed to Debre Damo, grins Abba Tekle.
I was with my father. I was terried, but I put my faith in God. After
that, I climbed like a monkey.
Debre Damo & the Helpful Snake
SOME MONKS
HAVE NOT BEEN
DOWN THE
MOUNTAIN
FOR 40 YEARS
Amonk climbs upto
Debre Damo. Only mencan
visit the monastery,
and only male livestock
can be kept at the top.
oppositeAbbaTekle
Haimanot inside the church
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Kelemework Gebrehiwot dusts his hands, puts down his trowel
and inspects his grouting with undisguised pride. He stands in
a room that could be a provincial branch of B&Q full of power
tools, half-empty pots of paint and a whiff of industrial-strength
bleach. Despite appearances, this is deeply sacred ground.
When I work here I feel I am standing at the foot of a great
ladder, he says, a broad smile spreading across his face. And
this ladder reaches all the way to heaven.
Kelemework is one of many clergymen in Aksum building
a new chapel that will soon store Ethiopias holiest relic the
Ark of the Covenant. It is believed to be the chest containing the
stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, given to
Moses by God on Mount Sinai, a thousand miles north of here.
According to the Bible, and rst described in the Book of Exodus,
the Ark is capable of parting rivers and destroying armies; the
sight of it can blind you and its slightest touch can smite you
cold dead. It is not, however, immune to structural seepage.
Two Christmases ago, a leak sprung in the roof of the chapel
currently housing the Ark necessitating the construction of
this second, emergency chapel next door.
It will not be the rst time the Ark has been moved. Ethiopian
Christians believe the relic was rst carried to their country
from the Temple of Jerusalem 3,000 years ago by King Menelik I
rst of the Ethiopian kings, and the son of Solomon and the
Queen of Sheba. The Ark ended up in Aksum the ancient
capital of northern Ethiopia. It is interred here today among
the remnants of a pagan empire: strange obelisks that cast long
shadows over the churches at sunset, and ruined palaces
crumbling in the scrubby hills nearby.
The relic still exerts a strange tractor beam on Ethiopian
Christians. In the sunshine outside, white-robed pilgrims
mutter prayers to the Ark under owering jacaranda trees;
others kiss rusting railings, content to come as close to it as they
are permitted. No-one is allowed to see it save for one virgin
guardian appointed for life. He has vowed never to leave the
chapel grounds, and he is not a man disposed to idle conversation.
For these reasons, no historian can say for sure what is kept in
the vaults at Aksum. I know it is the true Ark, smiles Kelemework,
preparing to resume his grouting. I can sense it when I stand
here. It is in the atmosphere.
The Ark of the Covenant and the leaky roof
ETHIOPIANS BELIEVE THE ARK WAS
CARRIED HERE FROM JERUSALEM
Amonk prays
beside the bell
tower at Debre
Damo monastery
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Apilgrim near the
church gates of St
Mary of Aksum: the
home of the Ark
Kelemework
Gebrehiwot inside
the basement of the
newchapel
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An afternoon scene near
the townof Megab inthe
Tigray region. opposite
Awetu Getawey, standing
near the churchof Bet
Amanuel in Lalibela
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Oliver Smith is the staff writer for Lonely Planet Traveller. Not being good
with heights, he climbed upto AbunaYemataGuhwithout once lookingdown.
It is just before dawn on a Sunday morning, and the thoroughfares
of Lalibela are shrouded in inky blackness. Gradually, the night air
begins to stir with noises cock-a-doodle-doos from faraway farms
and the soft music of a church service, the hallelujahs and tinkling
bells seeming to emanate from the Earth itself. The sun climbs into
the sky and, one by one, white-robed pilgrims emerge from gloomy
tunnel mouths retracing in daylight footsteps they took hours
before in darkness.
It could be a set from a sword and sandals epic. Charlton Heston
could start bellowing from a cliff top and lightning might fork from
the heavens. It is, however, an everyday scene here at Lalibela, the
holy city at the heart of Ethiopia.
Lalibela is not only Ethiopias most sacred ground, it is arguably
Africas greatest archaeological site, an ancient city comparable
in scale to Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat or Pompeii. But here the
similarities end. Where the rest of humanity venerated their Gods
with ever taller buildings by stacking brick on top of brick the
masons of Lalibela did the precise opposite. Folklore tells that God
visited the 12th-century Ethiopian King Lalibela in a dream and
commanded he build a replica of Jerusalem here in Africa (to spare
his subjects the difcult pilgrimage to the real thing). Instead of
reaching for the skies, King Lalibela struck down into the Earth:
11 churches have been smashed, hollowed and chiselled into
existence out of the volcanic bedrock. It was a method that meant
no mortar was used and no mistakes could ever be undone.
Entering the sunken city, the magnitude of the accomplishment
becomes clear. Connecting all the churches is a subterranean
labyrinth: pathways and steps smoothed and bowed by years of
footfalls. Treading barefoot through this maze come trafc jams of
people. Among them is Awetu Getawey, a pilgrim who has travelled
four days with her auntie to visit Lalibela, sleeping in roadside
churches and waking at 4am each morning to start walking.
The journey was tiring, she says, clutching the crucix around
her neck, but when I entered Lalibela all of the hardship of the
walk was forgotten.
I follow Awetu to Bet Maryam probably the oldest and most
exquisite of all of Lalibelas churches. Standing in the nave, its
architecture seems almost organic, as if its columns and arches
climb and dip in tandem with the strata of the rock. Jerry cans full
of holy water are stacked in the aisles, and ancient frescoes are
half concealed in the shadowy heights of the church.
At the centre of Bet Maryam stands a huge pillar said to be
inscribed with an account of when and how Lalibela came to be
built, along with a prophecy for the end of all mankind. Rather
irritatingly, all these secrets have been deemed so powerful that
the column has been wrapped in cloth for ve centuries.
It means that historians still disagree quite how ancient Lalibela
really is most date it to the late 12th century, but some others
suggest work could have started here hundreds of years earlier. The
unique way the churches have been built makes them quite difcult
to date precisely. They are buildings dened by the absence rather
than presence of stone, so no layers of sediment have built up.
But there is another way of looking at it: that the columns,
cupolas and arches of Bet Maryam are really as old as any structure
on Earth, for the rock they are formed from hasnt moved an inch
since the day it was created.
King Lalibela and his African Jerusalem
CHURCHES WERE HOLLOWED
AND CHISELLED INTO EXISTENCE
OUT OF THE BEDROCK
Bet Giyorgis is Lalibelas
best preserved church,
dedicated to St George.
The supposed hoof
marks left by his horse
can be found inthe
rock nearby
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The ceilings of
Bet Maryam
are decorated
withfrescoes
Apriest blesses
pilgrims outside
the entrance to
Bet Giyorgis