Having visited the northwestern cluster of churches in the morning and, after a fortifying lunch. we set off for the five churches in the southeastern cluster: separated from the northwestern churches by the Jordan River, they’re meant to be the recreation of Jerusalem.
The first church Bet Gabriel Raphael was out of bounds as it had been recently renovated by the US. The project had only taken six months and the church was due to be reopen on Epiphany (19 January).
Bet Leham was a small mud type hut where they prepared the communion and here we had a choice to get to Bet Mercurious – either a 40m tunnel which was dark and head high and in some way was meant to determine whether you would go to heaven or hell or the top route. Roy opted for the tunnel with our shoe bearer, whilst I clambered up looking down into the place where they would exit. Roy was told to try to avoid using flashlight and navigate by putting his right hand against the wall and his left against the ceiling. Because the shoe bearer was holding his hand to help him, he found this a bit difficult and he kept bashing his bonce.
We waited for ages for them to emerge and we’d seen a big group, assumed they’d got stuck behind only to find they were already out and waiting in the shade. We scrambled down to greet them in what was the best church, as you could clearly see it carved out of the rock. Inside we found faded 12 or 13th century wall paintings of the three wise men (Balthazar came from Ethiopia) and the twelve disciples. In addition, there was a series of paintings on canvas depicting various religious themes which had been completed at the time the bet was built and had been put behind glass to prevent fading.
We then walked along a narrow open tunnel to Bet Emanuel (meaning God be with us) and the only monolithic church in the cluster. It had been unsuccessfully renovated by the Italians in that they’d actually damaged the walls.
Bet Mercurios was a cave church and housed a new painting of St Mercurios on his traditional black horse driving a spear through the evil King Oleanus
Our final church of this cluster, and said to resemble Petra, was Bet Abba Libanos which was very different to all the rest as it was built around a cave in a vertical face. Legend has it that it was built overnight by angels.
Bet Giyorgis was our final stop and a short drive away. It is the only uncovered church as UNESCO has covered the others with protective canopies. Eskedar explained the design represents Noah’s Ark and the scree depicted Mount Ararat where the ark landed with the olive bush at the top. Interestingly there is no reference to Noah in the book or online.
It was built slightly on a tilt to allow rain to run down three gutters on the sides and front: it was also narrower at the top to provide stability. II was an incredible sight from the top but we first made our way down yet another steep open tunnel to reach the bottom. By now it was getting towards 5pm and the priest had just locked up after a big group but Eskedar shouted to him, he opened up and we had the place to ourselves. Eskedar’s first priority was to get the priest to bless him with his cross on his stomach (as he was still feeling sick) and on his back. Inside was the original wooden chest of King Lalibela, said to contain the tools used to create the churches. Eskedar demonstrated a huge wooden corkscrew used to open and close it. Whilst walking round the outside we saw the body parts of pilgrims who had wanted their body placed in a hollowed out part of the rock – you could actually make out the detail of the feet.
All the sights were stunning and it was hard to imagine that they had been carved out of solid rock. However, there was lots of up and down, steep paths, stairs and scree. The insides of all the churches had very uneven stony floors and although they were covered with various mats, it was very easy to trip.
It was an excellent but taxing day and you need to be reasonably fit particularly as Lalibela is at 2630m above sea level.