Early morning a bit after 7 we drove up the mountain and walked the final kilometer to Church of St. Nakutallab, a nephew of King/St. Lalibela, for his feast day celebration. We passed hundreds of the faithful, most clad in white, coming and going to the Church carved out of a mountain cave. Tade, our guide to give us a sense of the power of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, explained that Orthodox Christmas was approaching on January 7. Last year 1.8 million of the faithful came to this small town. Some by car and bus from Addis Ababa and other cities throughout Ethiopia, but most just walking from rural villages all over this large mountainous coutry, 3 times the size of France. Many even walked barefoot. The local community of Lalibela is overwhelmed with every hotel room and spare bedrooms in homes overflowing. Many bring plastic and the town itself becomes a sea of plastic tents. To support the pilgrims, the local community provides food and shelter as they can. The young organize symbolic washing of the feet ceremonies. Something to see and experience someday.
Walking the final rocky dirt path to the Church, we passed scores of smiling faces, some with an ash cross on their forehead. Arriving at the simple church, we took off our shoes and entered through a wood door to an area where dozens were praying and chanting. Then going up some rocks through another wood framed doorway with cloth curtain, we descended into the main area where to the right 20-25 priests donned in white robes and white turbans sang in prayer holding the holy Ethiopian walking sticks with 2 pieces sticking out of the top forming a cross. Surrounding them were scores of Ethiopians, old, young, children, all praying or singing along with the priests. Young boys sat on the mat covered stone floor adding percussion to the chanting bonging with their hands on 3 African drums. As the only white people, Mika and I got alot of looks which were mostly smiles, as we felt welcomed and at home. For me I feel most at home on pilgrimage for reasons beyond my understanding. A deep joy overwhelmed me and tears of joy came as I saw a young Ethiopian women reading from the book of Mary.
We then entered a third room separated by a curtained doorway. We walked up a few steps and then passed through the curtain. I was last and the room was very dark. As I descended a few feet it was uneven stones and I stumbled and almost fell, making me think of a Spanish woman we say a few days earlier, who had broken her leg in a similar situation at Simien Lodge in the Simien Mountains. Anyway, I survived and Tade pointed out 9 stones bowls on the floor which were filled with holy water coming out of the mountain. Several priests were kneeling with their head on the floor facing the far wall covered in a full curtain. Tade explained that a replica of the Ark of the Covenant was behind the wall, and too holy to view just as the supposed original one which resides in a small church in Axum to the north. Supposedly brought here from Jerusalem by priests during dangerous times in Jerusalem centuries ago. Menilek I, the son of Solomon and Sheba, settled here many years before the birth of Christ, so there is also a strong connection to Judaism here. To the left of the curtain Tade unveiled 2 beautiful paintings depicting Biblical scenes; the crucifixion, Mary’s Assumption into heaven. Even St. George slaying the dragon. George is the patron saint of Ethiopia, as he is in England, Portugal, etc.. In Ethiopia alone there are over 500 Churches of St. George.
I asked Tade if I could place some holy water, which has healing powers, upon my cancerous spots on my head and neck. Only the priest can do that so soon one of the church priests splashed some of the cool mountain water on my face hopefully facilitating my healing.
We then entered the final room which was an area for women to pray, but also housed some interesting artifacts, including 2 900 year old crowns donated by a King which are now used in local marriages by the bride and groom. There were also some 700 year old paintings, and 2 900 year old magnificent crosses. One with six points on either side of the top of the cross representing the 12 apostles. At the bottom Moses stick parting the Red Sea. The gold cross had depictions of Mark, Mathew, Luke, and John, as well as the angels Gabriel and Michael. A third cross had three small crosses on the end representing the Holy Trinity. But the center cross caught my eye bearing a resemblance to St. Brigid’s Cross of Ireland.
We proceeded through another curtain back into the main part of the church where the priests continued their praying and singing. So we just sat and enjoyed the beautiful energy and atmosphere for another half hour. Upon leaving we rang the stone bell which had a beautiful tone. Wonderful first church experience and we still have the main 14 churches of Lalibela to come.