The rock hewn churches of Lalibela

Leaving Aksum for a short flight to Lalibela means that we have now entered the drier part of the country where acacia trees (some with goats climbing in them) dot the hilly landscape and the shadow of famine is never far away. Unsurprisingly, this region also shows a greater proliferation of signs advertising aid projects, many of them now clearly suffering from dried up funding and neglect. Youngsters, all of whom have a line about needing money for their studies, pester visitors in droves and few bother to pretend to be selling any goods or services in exchange. Still, they aren’t starving.

It may be more than twenty five since the great famines of East Africa attracted the attention of the guitar-wielding crusaders of Band Aid but Ethiopia has yet to recover its reputation or its self respect. After all, world travellers can nowadays view Rwanda in terms of gorillas rather than genocide and millions still flock to see Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwe side despite the country’s terrible record for Human Rights. But Ethiopia is till known worldwide for its begging bowl and the absolutely staggering sums of money that we are still not allowed to suggest failed to reach the hungry for fear of punitive litigation.

This is a land of regular famine: ten year droughts, hundred year droughts, biblical lean years and years of plenty. More than 80% of its GDP is agricultural and its fertile regions are very fertile indeed. There have been good emperors and bad emperors but Haile Selassie, the one who concealed the extent of the dreadful famine of 1972/3 from the outside world for fear of tarnishing his reputation has much to answer for. Actually, he won’t be doing much answering for in 1990, after the fall of the Communist regime which supplanted him, his bones were found (some say under the latrines) in one of the Addis Palaces.

How then could such a large group of people, the Rastafari, believe that he was/is a god? Known by his former name, Ras Tefari, Prince Regent of Ethiopia between 1892 and 1930 had made a lasting impression on the world when, as the only black leader of Africa, he addressed the League of Nations in 1936 condemning the Italian occupation. Black consciousness and anti-segregationist movements in America and the Caribbean adopted him as a figurehead and he was soon identified as the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah predicted in the Book of Revelations.

All rather sad for a group of people from the other side of the world, whose emerging identity was now irretrievably associated with a charismatic but corrupt dictator in the true “solid gold bathtap” mold who allowed widespread slavery to persist in his country well into the twentieth century. The “Back to Africa” movement met with little success but fermented some very poor relations in other parts of the world for a while. It may not be much consolation now but at least I have some idea why, when I first stepped out onto the London Streets in a police uniform in 1975, dreadlocked young men wearing traffic light colours spat in my direction and muttered “Babylon”.

Well, what about the ancient rock cut churches of Lalibela then? They were quite wonderful of course but, dare I say it, there were rather a lot of them. The town is divided by a ceremonial representation of the River Jordan and the churches arranged as a facsimile of the Holy Land, making this a place of pilgrimage ever since King Lalibela saw it all in a dream sometime in the 12th century. Scholars are divided from the faithful over whether they were all constructed in the twenty three years of his reign as the design varies markedly and the amount of digging required would have kept at least 40,000 workers busy without even allowing for the customary observance of religious holidays. I think that some maps and a well captioned photogallery could explain it just as well.

Categories: Africa

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