Axum,Tigray and Lalibela
Axum and its stellae
My journey to Axum was my plane. It had taken me a while to realise that internal flights in Ethiopia are cheap, a fact I should have taken advantage of earlier in the trip. What I have subsequently discovered is that a special reduction is available if you flew into Ethiopia on Ethiopian Airlines. As a relatively new airline it has a very modern fleet. I did manage to leave the plane at Lalibela by mistake, but fortunately my American friends who also happened to be on the plane alerted the crew. I was found and escorted back through check and security while the plane waited, not something I would have expected at Heathrow, London.
Axum offers a jolt into one of the oldest inhabited places in Africa, once the centre of the powerful Aksumite Kingdom. The most striking remains are in the stelae, obelisks 1,700 years old. With the tallest at 33m, they are remarkable in that they are constructed of one solid piece of rock.
We hired a vehicle for a few days to tour the more inaccessible of the mountain cave churches. Despite good surfaced roads between the main towns, the churches are generally some way from habitation, accessible only by dirt track then several kilometres of hiking into the mountains. Without the churches, Tigray would make for exciting trekking country. The churches add another dimension. With so few visitors, the priests are all too eager to open up their treasure. What treasures they are. Illustrated bibles, silver crucifixes, carved ceilings, drums. With a culture so far removed from western orthodoxy, it makes it hard to place the artefacts in time.
One of the more taxing visits was that of the church of Debra Damo. This is accessible only via a rope. While locals seem able to climb the rope hand over hand, we soft westerners suffered the ignominy of being hauled up in a sling usually reserved for baggage and mules. The sense of security was not helped by the nature of the sling – sheep or goat skins sewn together with strips of skin. Being greeted at the top by a man with a machine gun added to the sense of doubt that this was a good idea.
Lalibela and around
Unlike Axum, Lalibela is one of those places you feel you know before you arrive. The rock hewn churches identify Ethiopia as do the pyramids for Egypt and the Taj Mahal for India. There are tourists, but they dive into the churches and out again while, as a lone traveller you savour the atmosphere, one which seems unchanged for centuries. While few of the worshipers or priest speak English, they quickly enter ‘conversation’ with the traveller who remains after the tour group leaves, often revealing intriguing church treasures.
But Lalibela is more than its city churches. Set in the high mountains it offers great opportunities for trekking for the mountains themselves, the wild life, and of course, the hidden churches.