A hideout for Christians

Some places I go, its not too safe to be Christian.  And then there is Lalibela, Ethiopia.  In some parts of Ethiopia, Muslims are gradually taking control, not in Lalibela.  Last year I was in the ancient city of Harar.  You might have heard of the walled city there which has entrances for hyenas to come in at night.  The hyena clean up scraps.  A few guys make money from tourists by holding meat in their mouths which hyenas come and take. 

Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, August 2019

My translator then was with a native of Harar who talked of Christian statues being replaced by Moslem statues in recent years.  Harar was one of the many Ethiopian cities which became Jewish after one of their Queens (called the Queen of Sheba in our Bible) visited Solomon.  Many believe the Song of Songs was written by a heart-broken King Solomon after The Queen of Sheba left him[1].

The Queen had heard about the wisdom and accomplishments of Solomon and came to see for herself.  She was so impressed she brought the truths of the great “I am” back with her to Ethiopia.  People all across Ethiopia were also impressed with this truth and converted to Judaism.

A son the Queen had with Solomon, Menelik, is said brought the Ark of the Covenant to another ancient Ethiopian city, Axum, where it is still preserved.  The Keeper of the Ark until recently brought out the Ark for Christian holidays, but no longer does due to political disturbances.

The Jewish religion grew and prospered along with Ethiopia for centuries.  Then a child was born in Bethlehem.  The Ethiopian Jews heard of Jesus’ teachings (remember the Ethiopian eunuch who was baptized by Philip in Acts 8?), were transformed by this reformation of Judaism and became Christian.

Christianity grew and prospered along with Ethiopia.  Meanwhile in Europe, the Western center of Christianity, Rome, fell to the invading Goths.  Then Jerusalem fell to the invading Muslims in 1187.

An Ethiopian King at the time, Lalibela, ordered the construction of a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia.  The result was 11 interconnected churches carved into the mountain by hand.  Best known is the Church of St. George, shaped as a Greek Orthodox Church.  The town which has grown up around the churches is now known as Lalibela.

Today Lalibela is still a town with no churches other than Orthodox Ethiopian Christian.  When I visited last month, I stayed in a mountain-side hotel with a view of the plateau where King Lalibela lived.  It’s just an open plain today on top of a mountain connected by a slender ridge to the modern town of Lalibela.

The hotel clerk came in early so I could have coffee watching the sun rise on their roof top terrace.  He stayed to chat a bit.  I heard a sound which I assumed was a mosque issuing the call to prayer.  I asked him about the singing and he was confused and surprised.  “In Lalibela, there are only Christian churches. Does that really sound muslim to you?”  As I listened closer, I realized it was unlike the singing issuing from minarets.  Later the church bells started ringing, affirming that I was in a country which had been Christian a thousand years before America ever had a Christian church.

Lalibela itself is barely connected to the world.  Maybe that’s why Christianity has remained so strong here. Most pilgrims from the West fly into an airport down in the valley and ride a bus up the rocky road to the top of the mountain.  Pilgrims from Ethiopia take the land route.  Some travel by foot for a month to reach Lalibela during the Christmas holidays.  A hundred thousand Christians pack the town around Christ’s birthday, but the churches were pretty empty the Thursday I was there.

It would have been even more empty except for another Christian holiday, Ashenda.  Ashenda requires the Ethiopian devout to sacrifice a lamb and feed their relatives and the poor.  My host, the head of a 50,000 member Cooperative Union, set me free to visit Lalibela during this holiday because of this obligation.  When I called him from Lalibela, I could hear the lambs bleating in the background.  All along our route to Lalibela we were stopped by girls dressed with aloe stalks made into skirts who danced into the middle of the road every kilometer or so.  They were singing, clapping and laughing as they jumped out of the way of our Land Cruiser.

My driver was so happy to come to Lalibela again. He had come during Christmas, but never at a time when he could really appreciate all the churches.

In addition to the bands of girls stopping traffic, there were pilgrims dressed in white singing as they journeyed to Lalibela.  Young men’s activity during the holiday mainly involves snapping whips.  In the center of Lalibela, a group of young men dressed in green polka-dots where snapping their whips at all the onlookers as they danced.  A group of white clad girls with aloe skirts was dancing nearby, but never too close to the whip-snapping guys.

A few European tourists were there.  One was a scantily clad blonde (who got hoots and calls of “hey baby”) but most were conservatively dressed. Some in the white shawl worn by all Ethiopians visiting the churches. I didn’t see a single woman in pants except that blonde during my entire visit.  All Ethiopian women wear dresses, except a few Westernized ones in the biggest cities. 

Our four-hour drive back to Ras Gayint Cooperative Union was the same scenic mountain road interrupted by dancing girl bands and whip-snapping boys. What a way to prepare for my assignment helping the Union better market their white pea (navy) beans!

A group of twenty senior managers turned out on Saturday, Sunday and the next week to examine their situation and how to achieve their goals.  We had fun, accomplished a lot, and made me wish it was a little bit easier to get from Almyra, Arkansas to the ancient cities of the highlands of Ethiopia.


[1] https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/andagreeney/files/the_queen_of_sheba_possibly_adored_in_the_song_of_songs.pdf