Early 2024 is a time of reflection for us. Mika and I ended 2023 in Ethiopia on pilgrimage to the holy city of Lalibela. After so many pilgrimages over the past 10 years around the globe our path had led us here to the highlands of Ethiopia, where at 2300 meters elevation, lies a “New Jerusalem”, with its thirteen 12th century rock hewn churches carved out of stone beneath the ground.
Why Ethiopia and Lalibela? Well I would say our pilgrimage flow took us here. We started our 2024 pilgrimages back in March in The Holy Land, Israel flying into Tel Aviv. A few days later we bussed to Nazareth planning to begin the 65 kilometer Jesus Trail the next day. But first, visiting the Catholic Basilica of St. Mary and the Annunciation built on the spot where Gabriel appeared to Mary to explain she was carrying Jesus. We also visited the simpler St. Mary Orthodox Cathedral upon a holy well and thought to be the site of the Annunciation by Orthodox Chirstians.
The following day Mika and I took to the Jesus Trail for 4 days following in the footsteps of Jesus to the Sea of Galilee and Capernaum where he and the Apostles resided for much of the 3 years of his ministry. Having just had a hip replacement the previous December, and needing to replace the other one soon, I apprehensively set out from Nazareth with Mika.
Nazareth was urban and hot and arid. But just a few kilometers after starting, coming up a hill we had our first encounter, a young shepherd herding a flock of 20 or so sheep. A special start on this particular pilgrimage. First stop was Cana where we had a wonderful stay with a local family. We also pledged ourselves to each other in marriage. No priests necessary. Just us at the holy Church of the Wedding of Cana.
The following days took us through other holy spots but also one of the most famous battles of the Crusades, at Hattin in 1187, where the Christian Army was annihilated by the forces of Saladin, thus ending any hope the Crusaders had to retake Jerusalem. On the 4th day we descended Mt. Arbel to the Sea of Galilee and Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene. We then followed the lakefront to the site of The Sermon on the Mount and Church of the Beatitudes. Soon after we arrived in Tabgha and the small Franciscan St. Peter’s Primacy Church where Jesus told Peter he was the Chief Apostle. By this time after scrambling down the mountain and walking around 25 kilometers, I was barely able to stand. We entered St. Peter’s Church grounds late afternoon and it was very crowded with pilgrims. Everyone there, old, young, handicapped seemed to be passing me. It was a most humbling experience for a once strong walker used to keeping up with just about anyone.
After finishing at Capernaum we bussed to Tiberias, another very holy city. The following day we made our way to Jerusalem, and the most intense pilgrimage I have ever experienced. Different in that you did not have time to think through what you were seeing and experiencing. And perhaps that’s part of its power. You FEEL with the intensity increasing as you get caught up in the path. I am one of those pilgrims that prefer walking, as an understatement. The longer the pilgrimage the better. That said we walked at most 1 kilometer on as powerful a pilgrimage as a Christian can undertake, Via Dolorosa (The Stations of the Cross). Following the hallowed ground where Jesus carried his cross starting several steps inside St. Stephen’s Gate, past the spots where he was lashed and received the crown of thorns, where Veronica washed his face, where Simon picked up his cross and helped Jesus, on to the holiest spot in all Christendom. Inside Holy Sepulchre Church to the site of his Crucifixion. Down the stairs we then came to the site where the women cleansed Jesus’ corpse. Today, women were wiping their handkerchiefs on the spot where Jesus was laid which brought our own tears. Then to the tomb of Jesus where the lines were long as you have to enter the main tomb and then stoop down to enter a very small room with Jesus’ tomb. Exiting the Church coming out into the sun, we needed to find a place to sit and share our feelings after this most powerful experience.
The next morning we visited Bethlehem and The Church of the Nativity dedicated to his birth. Overwhelming after growing up in a strong Catholic family and community. Our tour also took us to the shepherd’s field where Jesus was taken to hide from Herod’s men. In the afternoon we continued on to the River Jordan and the site of Jesus’ Baptism by his cousin John.
The following day, we walked through the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem. Armenian? Yes. The other three quarters seem logical; Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. We learned Armenia was actually the first Christian country dating back to 301 A.D. Armenian monks started coming to Jerusalem over 1,600 years ago. As Santiago de Compostela junkies, we wanted to visit the Church of St. James. A key moment in this year of pilgrimage throughout ancient Christendom. St. James is looked at in a totally different way from the Spanish and pilgrims to Santiago. The focus here was on his piety and being the first of the apostles to be martyred with his beheading by the order of Herod. Our view of Santiago may be different but so what. I mentally embraced those sitting and standing nearby, our praying to two very different St. James.
Leaving the church we made our way to the Wailing Wall for Shabat(Sabbath). We were just steps from Holy Sepulchre, and on the other side of the Wall is the Islamic holy spot Dome on the Rock which we visited the following day. For many days afterward as this pilgrimage continued, I thought back on the harmony I saw of the Jews, Christians, and Islamics living together next to these holy sites in tolerance. Unfortunately, it was just months later when the fragile peace was broken by the Hamas attack on Israelis in Gaza. Reflecting now I suppose I was naive, but I choose to be optimistic that someday things will change for the better. After all, it wasn’t long ago that Christians were attacking and killing other Christians for having different views of Christ. One can only hope that someday we can all live together in peace not caring which religion others follow.
After Israel, Mika and I traveled through Jordan with a highlight of course being the great rock hewn city of Petra. Not religious, but spectacular in its own right and certainly a pilgrimage spot. A highlight for me was walking high into the mountains above the Treasury and sipping tea on a cliffside cafe looking down at the most iconic building of Petra.
After Jordan, we flew to Yerevan, Armenia and did some combined driving and walking to an assortment of Armenian Orthodox Churches dating back to the 4th century when Armenia became the first country to declare itself a Christian nation as mentioned earlier.
First we visited Etchmiadzin, the Vatican of the Armenian Christian Church. In fact we joined a small group for a few minutes led by Pope Karekin II. The next day we drove to Khor Virap where St. Gregory was incarcerated for 12 years, with the snow capped Holy Mountain Ararat soaring to the west.
The following day we walked from the mountain church, Noravank, 20 kilometers through spectacular mountain scenery to the tiny village of Gnishik where a friendly family embraced us and welcomed us into their home to join a Sunday family meal including some shots of Armenian brandy, which Winston Churchill preferred over French Brandy. Then to Garni where we visited the restored Roman Temple of Garni from the 1st century, before heading to the 4th Century Geghard Monastery, founded by St. Gregory, built into the side of a mountain between the 4th and 13th Century. A very haunting place. Some of the chapels had excellent acoustics and Mika blessed us by singing inside the chapel with her beautiful voice magnified.
Our last visit to a church in Armenia required a long walk deep into a forest along the Trans Caucasus Trail just outside of Dilijin, to a 12th century moss covered church. Beautiful in its simplicity.
We then traveled overland into Georgia which was the second country to declare itself a Christian state later in the 4th century, 326 AD. At the time I thought this to be the final part of our pilgrimage exploring ancient Christendom.
In Georgia, Christianity is strong as it is in Armenia, although both countries are otherwise surrounded by Islamic countries with the exception of Russia on Georgia’s northern border. While we visited several churches, my favorites started with the oldest church in Tbilisi, 6th Century Anchiskhati Basilica, a small chapel really. The Soviets turned it into a Museum, but it was restored and reverted back to religious use in 1991.
Next to the mountain town of Sighnaghi, we visited the beautiful, though simple St. Nino Church. The following morning we walked a few kilometers down the mountain to Bodhe Monastery where St. Nino is buried in St. George’s Church. There were beautiful views from there and we also walked down the steep mountain side through a forest to a spring offering holy water within a small chapel.
A few days later we were far to the north near the Russian border in the town of Kazbegi. On a cold morning we set off down to the River Terek crossing and trudged up the mountain for a few hours to a spectacular setting with the Gergeti Trinity Church amidst the soaring snow-covered Caucasus Mountains. A truly spectacular setting.
On to Mstkheta where we visited the incredible 11th century Cathedral Svetitiskhoveli with its beautiful murals and supposedly where the robe of Christ is buried. The Cathedral was beautiful with its magnificent frescos, ancient tombs, and even a small chapel built within the ediface. It was here that Georgia proclaimed the country to be Christian just a few years after Armenia.
Eventually we made it to Mestia high in the mountains of northwest Georgia. Here there were a few churches we visited but it was the spectacular mountain setting and walking over a pass to another valley on the walk to Ushguli that was most special in one of the more beautiful mountain settings I have ever visited. The people were most friendly and the food and wine were of good value. While I enjoy visiting churches and feel a connection to God in them, it is rarely as strong as the connection felt at beautiful mountain passes overlooking lush green valleys or other beautiful nature.
While exploring early Christianity in Israel, Armenia, and Georgia we heard mention of Ethiopia and learned it was the third country to declare itself Christian later in the 4th century around 341 AD. Neither of us had much knowledge of Ethiopia except that it was where coffee was first brewed and mostly mountainous and in Africa. The seed was planted and we would need to go there at some point as a continuation of this pilgrimage.
After some more traveling through Turkey, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, and Croatia we flew to Lisbon and walked the Camino Portuguese 600 kms. to Santiago and Muxia. Along the way we reflected on our pilgrimages so far and decided after walking to Santiago and Muxia we would stay in Muxia at our global pilgrim house for 2 months before Mika’s Schengen Zone Visa expired and travel to Chicago to visit family. But then we would travel to Africa, including Ethiopia to complete our early Christianity Pilgrimage.
Arriving in Ethiopia in early December we made our way to Gondar to a magnificent church, Debre Berhan Selassie (Mountain of the Enlightened Trinity). We walked a few kilometers from our cozy hotel, Lodge du Chateau, with our guide Simon enjoying the beautiful people of Ethiopia along the way. Many were clad in white. We arrived at the church around 9AM. The original 16th Century Church was most likely circular and the current rectangular church is relatively new dating back to the late 18th century. It is supposedly the only Gondar church to emerge unscathed after two attacks in the 1860’s and the Mahdist pillaging of 1888. The local story as explained by Simon was that after the Mahdis destroyed all the other churches they were raiding Debre Berhan when an angry swarm of bees came out of the church grounds through the gate attacking the Mahdis who fled, deciding to leave this church alone.
The perimeter wall had 12 equidistant towers representing the 12 apostles, one of which is larger than the others and possibly meant to house relics of the Ark of the Covenant, which supposed is located in a Chapel far to the north in Aksum. The 13th tower or main gate is meant to represent Jesus. Fortunately we saw no bees as we entered the impressive stone gate.
Entering the church we first removed our shoes which is a practice one follows at all churches here in Ethiopia. Interesting as that of course is a practice we always follow in Islamic Mosques, but this is the first country where that was the rule in Christian Churches.
Being a global pilgrim I have visited many Christian Churches and I found this one to be one of the most touching in its simplicity. Reminded me of some of the Romanesque churches of Europe. However, what made this church stand out was the beautiful artwork adorning every wall, corner to corner, and even the ceiling. The ceiling had 80 cherubs looking down representing the all seeing eye of God. The walls are painted with dozens of biblical and Ethiopian church scenes. We fortunately had the church to ourselves and Simon slowly took us around the inside explaining each of the painted scenes. Of course many we recognised including the crucifixion, the beheading of John the Baptist, the Resurrection. I particularly liked the depiction of the Holy Trinity where each member looked pretty much like the other, an older dark skinned man.
After taking in Simon’s explanations and answering our questions we sat quietly with a single priest guardian. I felt this was this was one of my favorite churches ever. Surprised and excited as our ultimate goal is still several hundred kilometers away in the great holy city of Lalibela with its thirteen underground rock hewn 12th century churches. We arrived there a few weeks before Christmas when it should be quiet as there are few tourists in Ethiopia due to an internal conflict, which the locals rightfully call War. We were told that on Ethiopia’s Christmas Day, January 7, 1.8 million or more pilgrims are expected to descend upon Lalibela. Urbanites come by car but the vast majority of rural pilgrims will be journeying on foot, many barefoot to celebrate Christmas in a place that was built around the time of the Crusades when Jerusalem was lost by the Christians and King Lalibela attempted to create a ‘New Jerusalem’.
Unfortunately, In Gondar we learned of the ongoing Civil War here and many roads were closed so we could not walk or bus to Lalibela. So we had to fly to Lailbela via Addis Ababa. Not the ideal circumstance for pilgrims who prefer to walk but the important thing was to get there in whatever way possible.
Arriving in Lalibela, the airport was in the plains 600 meters below the town. We were met by the very friendly manager, David from our accommodation, Top 12 Hotel. So called because the hotel has 12 rooms and is at the top of a cliff. The view from our room was stunning, overlooking the valley below and mountains beyond including the setting sun later in the day.
Since we did not walk here we decided to visit two mountain churches our first two mornings here and include some hiking which worked out well. The first was a visit to a cave church, St. Nakutalaab, in the mountain above us where a ceremony was active. Hundreds of locals clad in white, coming and going to the church via a mountain path overlooking the valley below. Arriving at the church we were told once again to remove our shoes as required in Islamic Mosques. The ties to Islam are strong here with Eritrea to the north once being part of Yemen and there is just a narrow slit in the Red Sea separating this part of Africa with Yemen and the Middle East. The second thing I observed was that many would kneel near the church and then kiss the ground, a second practice that is common in Islamic religion.
We arrived before 7AM on the feast day of St. Nakutalaab, hence the large crowd. Inside the church scores were singing, praying, and chanting. Kids were staring at us. 18 priests to our right were chanting, holding holy sticks and music makers while 3 boys on the floor banged African drums. Walking next into the holiest room were nine natural stone bowls where the holy water dripped into from the cave room. The priest blessed my skin cancer scars by spraying my face with Holy Water. Our guide, Tati, unveiled some beautiful 16th century paintings of Mary, The Crucifixion, St. George slaying the Dragon, and St. Nakutalaab.
The last room contained 12th century relics including two exquisite complex crosses as well as two crowns once used by the King that locals now use for wedding ceremonies at the church. The priest then showed us some holy books written on goatskin containing beautiful colored drawings of various holy scenes.
The whole experience was powerful, and though we had seen everything we did not want to leave. So we went back to the main room and sat by the priests as they sang with the drums pounding and the many people praying and chanting along.
We got many looks. Lalibela is normally filled with tourists from around the world but the Civil War has reduced the number to just a few. We only saw another 5 or 6 white people here over a week. We were the only guests at our hotel other than a Canadian living in Addis came for the weekend. The other impact for us of the Civil War is that the government has cut off access to the Internet. In Gondar there were 3 Bars that had Internet access, albeit slow. Here there was no Internet whatsoever. It was an interesting experience. It’s been a few years since I went this long without Internet. At first we were frustrated and complaining, but one adjusts and enjoys the increased free time allowing for more writing, conversing, and reflecting.
The second day we woke early though unfortunately our guide was delayed so we did not leave until 6:25 missing the sunrise from Asheton Maryam Church 600 meters up a nearby mountain. The last kilometer required a walk up a mountain trail through a cave tunnel emerging into the Church. We kept walking up the mountain a few hundred meters more in elevation to the mountain top plateau where the Ethiopians had built a new circular church. Nearby a shepherd tended to his flock which Tati explained was owned by the Church.
Coming back down we visited the Church and were the only ones so the Priest took some time showing us some of the beautiful old artwork and holy books as well as two 800 year old crosses.
The following day, rising early and departing via tuktuk accompanied by our guide Tati, we drove 10 minutes to the Tourist office for the Lalibela Church Complex. We paid our $100 each for the ticket giving us 5 days of access.
There are 2 sets of Churches, the Northern and the Southern. While it is possible to visit all 13 Churches in one day, we chose to go slow and hence will do one per day. Tati has suggested that we visit the Southern group today as there are Masses going on. To start, Tati showed us a small room that is connected with the first church. A place called Bethlehem where they would make the bread to be turned into the body of Christ. Connecting Bethlehem to our first Church was a 73 meter dark tunnel through the rock. Symbolically, it is walking through Hell on the way to Heaven. Tati advised us to place our left hands on the ceiling and our right hand on the right wall. Very practical as I have cut my head and arms in many caves over the years. It was quite eerie as after just a meter or two I could not see Tati or Mika ahead. A few times I had to stop and at one point I started to get anxious but one learns to slow down the breathing at those moments and continue on knowing that fresh air or maybe even heaven awaits at the end of the tunnel. I was disappointed that we did not walk to Lalibela, but like the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem 9 months earlier, this short walk had a powerful effect. The walk through hell seemed fairly long but it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes before we reached a dim light and climbed a few natural stairs in the stone exiting a wood door flush with the ground emerging into an area with scores of the devout, in front of The Church of Mercurios, a 3rd Century Egyptian Coptic Saint who was tortured and beheaded for his Christian beliefs. After coming out of the dark tunnel into the sunlight amidst the packed outer grounds of the church with all the white clad smiling Ethiopians, while not as intense as the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem, was powerful and beautiful.
The first two days we were led by knowledgeable Tati, who we could tell was a true believer. And I did not mention it yet but there was a fourth member of our group. Starting from the front office a guy with a pronounced limp was following us. As we were entering the dark tunnel he was making me a bit uncomfortable. I asked Tati if he was with him. Tati said, “He is available to guard and take off and put on your shoes at the various churches.” I turned to him, and politely said, “We don’t need your services.” Yet when we took off our shoes to enter St. Mercurios he was there to take them and neatly stack the 3 pairs. He diligently followed us the next two days and while we took off and put on our own shoes, I figured with the huge reduction in tourism he could use our help. So he was always there following us with a smile the next 2 days, guarding and handing us our shoes.
Throughout the next 3 days we visited all 13 of the rock hewn Churches. All similar but different.
An amazing experience. After visiting Petra in Jordan last March, we found this to be slightly similar, and no less spectacular. Aba Leibanos Church was in fact carved into a rock with the entrance and front wall only showing. I felt we were back in Petra. What makes Lalibela even more special for a pilgrim, unlike Petra, the churches here are all active and have been so for 800 years. Each day a few of the churches had packed crowds and live services. While Petra was filled with tourists though, here we saw maybe 6 other tourists over our 4 days visiting the churches.
Bet Medhane Alem was the most architecturally impressive of the Churches, purported to be the world’s largest rock hewn monolith, as high as 11 meters and covering an 800 square meter area. There are 36 pillars inside and 36 more outside supporting it. Some experts believe it was modeled after the Temple of Solomon.
We particularly liked Bet Maryam, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and the first church excavated here. The elaborately decorated interior is what makes it stand out from the others. Highlights include carvings of the original Lalibela Cross and Star of David, paintings on parts of the ceiling, and a relief of two riders fighting a dragon above the entrance. There was even a cross that appeared Celtic to me. Lalibela supposedly visited other Christian countries in the 12th century, and there was a Cross of Malta, and a Latin Cross on the walls as well to show their connection with the rest of the Christian world. Outside next to the church is a large Fertility Pool where people wanting to have children are still lowered via a harnessed rope 3 times into the green slimy water. Men as well as women.
Michael and Golgotha Churches were impressive as well. It had a very heavy feel inside which was interesting as supposedly Lalibela himself is buried there. The two churches are connected via a single narrow doorway. The entrance is into Michael, and I had to leave Mika behind entering Golgotha as women are not allowed. Tati explained it had something to do with Mary Magdalene not being allowed into the tomb of Christ. Entering Golgotha they only allowed lay people into a small area, but there were a few life size statues of Apostles that were quite impressive.
The final church we visited stood off alone 200 meters away from the main body of churches. We first climbed a hill above it offering the most iconic photo of Lalibela, The roof at ground level of The Church of St. George and the Dragon. The rooftop is a perfectly symmetrical cross with each cross pointing perfectly east west north and south which we proved with our compass. We went back a few times just to hang out as I found this church to be highly atmospheric. From the top a few meters from the church top we descended into a narrow passageway that eventually led to the church.
The following day on our own we visited the hill above the Church to watch the sun slowly shine on the rooftop cross. I loved this as it connected me back to Santiago where I love to spend early mornings sipping tea on the eastern side slowly watching the sun spreading out across the church and waking Santiago nobly standing above the Holy Door.
After being led by our guide for 2 days, it was nice to leisurely stroll through the complex taking our time and interacting with the locals. There is a hilltop between the north and south complexes that made for a great place to sit and soak in the atmosphere.
So today we are back in Addis Ababa, flying to Victoria Falls tomorrow to begin a new pilgrimage to the heart of Africa and some of the most spectacular nature in the world.
But after undergoing the 2 hip replacements over the past 13 months, I was thinking a month or so ago how my health has slowed me down. But now I reflect on how it was another beautiful year and without planning it, we completed our Pilgrimage to the Roots of Christianity.
A final thought on a most special “It’s A Small World” moment. In our final days in Lalibela we spotted a couple touring St. George Church as we sat high above it. The next night we went to a lodge to have a beer and enjoy the sunset and the couple were there. The woman looked vaguely familiar I thought, as we all watched the beautiful sunset. I heard them talking from a distance and I thought they talked Spanish fast and wondered if they were from Madrid. So I asked, and the guy Eliso said, I am from Argentina and she is from Peru. I looked at her and recognized her. “Dani”?! She looked at me and I said, “I’m Kevin from Nepal”. We had met and spent a few hours talking on a rooftop bar of an inn far off the beaten path in Tansen, Nepal, 10 years earlier. Wonderful to reminisce and catch up.