(Much of this post is a repeat of the blog posts that I made when I went to Ethiopia. However, the people of my church told me that they wanted to hear more about the trip, so I used some of this to speak on a subject that has not traditionally been a part of most Christians in America)
The town of Lalibela is in northern Ethiopia, and is one of the oldest of Christian pilgrim destinations in the world. As I said in my earlier posts on Ethiopia, the primary reason that I went to that country was to see my son Levi. However, as he and I went up to the town of Lalibela, it was also with a sense of pilgrimage that I traveled to that place. It is this subject of being a pilgrim that I would like to speak on today.
THE CHRISTIAN PILGRIMAGE
With this in mind, before I tell you about the city of Lalibela, I need to go into a little of the history of how it became a center of worship.
Very early in history, even before the birth of Christ, there were communities of people in Ethiopia who had converted to Judaism and practiced their faith according to the Mosaic Law. The exact origins of these communities are unknown and shrouded with many theories (which I won’t go into right now). There are still some of the Jewish faith in Ethiopia today, although many had emigrated to Israel in the 20th century under Israel’s Law of Return.
The Birth of Lalibela
When we move ahead in history from the Old Testament times to the second century after Christ, we come also to the time of the establishment of the city of Lalibela. Even a great deal of this more recent history is unknown to us, and much is open to the interpretation of whatever historian one cares to read. However, the general consensus is that the city began its role as a site of pilgrimage for Christians during the reign of the king of the region of that time, one Gebre Mesqel Lalibela. It was after this king that the city was named. The first two names, Gebre Mesqel, of the king literally mean, “Servant of the Cross,” for Lalibela was born into a Christian home in the year 1162.
At that time, Ethiopia was not an established nation as it is today, but the region of Ethiopia has been well recognized from ancient times, and the ancient territory of Ethiopia also its kingdoms. We have in the Bible, for instance, the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who was a court official to Candace, who was called “The queen of the Ethiopians” (Acts 8:27). This Ethiopian eunuch had been to Jerusalem to worship, and apparently at the point of the story in the Bible, was on his return trip to Ethiopia. As he traveled in his chariot, he was reading from the book of Isaiah, but could not understand the meaning of the Scripture. It was then that God called the early evangelist Phillip to explain to him the meaning of what he was reading.
This and other stories give us an indication that there was an early Christian community that began in Ethiopia, a people of whom we have little written history. By the second century AD, the Christians seem to have become well established in Ethiopia. As a result, the man Lalibela was born to Christian parents.
As with any well-known man or woman of early history, the accounts of the life of Lalibela are a combination of fact and legend, and it is often difficult to differentiate between the two. However, even legends are often based on true events, so there is benefit in learning even the legends.
One of the legends concerning Lalibela is that at his birth, a swarm of bees descended and surrounded the infant. If this would happen to you as a mom, you may scream in terror, but Lalibela’s mother interpreted it as being a sign that the boy would one day be the Emperor of Ethiopia. It was because of this that his mother bestowed upon him the third name, “Lalibela.” This name means, “The bees recognize his sovereignty.”
It is also widely accepted that Lalibela lived part of his youth in the Holy Land, and had visited and come to know the city of Jerusalem during his younger years. So deeply moved was he by his experience in that city that it became his desire to build a spiritual replica of Jerusalem in Ethiopia when he would one day return to his homeland.
Part of his motivation for this was, knowing most of the Christians from Ethiopia could not realistically ever travel to Jerusalem, he wanted to establish somewhat of a replica of Jerusalem. Perhaps it is better said that the city that Lalibela wanted to build would be a spiritual representation of Jerusalem. His purpose in this was so that the early Christians of Ethiopia could instead make their pilgrimage to that place instead of traveling up to the Jerusalem of Judea.
The results of Lalibela’s efforts is a city unlike any in the world. The buildings of this portion of the city are actually churches, eleven in all, that are each cut from one single block of scoria basalt rock. Each one in some way is said to represent humility and the spiritual life of the Christian faith. All of these churches are still in use today, as locals and pilgrims alike gather to worship.
Many of the patterns of the buildings and their names are also said to be representations of the spiritual life that Lalibela the man is said to have observed in Jerusalem during his youth. The names of the buildings have mostly Biblical names, and even the river of the town became known as the River Jordan.
There was yet another event that was to happen in that period of world history that made the founding of the town known as Lalibela even more critical for the time. In the year 1187 AD, the Saracen commander commonly known as Saladin laid siege to the city of Jerusalem of Judea, causing its surrender to him in early October of that year. At the time of the siege and sacking of the city, there were some Ethiopian pilgrims present in Jerusalem who witnessed all that had happened to this destination of their pilgrimage.
In fairness to Saladin, in his conquest of Jerusalem, the Muslim warrior attempted to take control of the city with spilling as little blood as possible. This was in great contrast to the methods of the Crusaders of 1099, when they had captured the city at that time. The history of that specific siege of Jerusalem by the Crusaders is written with great quantities of the blood of the victims.
But Saladin, with his own capture of Jerusalem, did not slaughter all whom he found within the city gates. He instead granted conditions of surrender for those inside. Part of these conditions included a provision for any who wished to leave Jerusalem instead of remaining under his command. These people would be required to pay a ransom, with which they could earn their own release.
When it was found that some of the residents could not pay the price of the ransom, Saladin allowed the amount to become negotiable. Still other ransoms were paid from the city treasury (which, one could say, Saladin could have easily seized anyway). Yet other captives were simply given their freedom without any payment at all. Some of those set free under one of these conditions were apparently the pilgrims from Ethiopia.
When these Ethiopian pilgrims returned to their homeland, they brought with them the news of the fall of Jerusalem. Again, to repeat the year that this happened, it occurred in 1187 AD.
The Founding of the City of Pilgrimage
I repeat the year because that also is the year that Lalibela the man began his reign in Ethiopia: 1187 AD. You may call this a coincidence of history or you may call it providence, but that was the year that the then Emperor Lalibela also began his work on the city that was to become known by his own name – the worship center of Lalibela, Ethiopia.
Of course, there is much that is unknown concerning the actual period of time when construction of the churches began, and much of it is open to the interpretation of historical evidence. However, it was at that time that the Emperor Lalibela saw the great need for a center of pilgrimage, and it was at that time when the development of the city was initiated in earnest.
The Christian Pilgrimage
We of the western Christian societies have largely gotten away from the notion of religious pilgrimages. It is unfortunate that we have allowed this to become so. A pilgrimage is indeed travel, but it is travel for a specific purpose that is not recognized by most modern day tourists. The reason most people want to tour a new place in these days is mostly self-centered. The modern day notion of any travel that is not work related is for personal entertainment and recreation, and little else.
The religious pilgrimage is not the same type of travel. A Christian pilgrimage is not for personal entertainment nor is it self-centered. It is instead God-centered. Certainly, as in any travel, there are new things to see and new things to experience. But the goal of the pilgrim is not to be able to snap a selfie of himself or herself in front of a cool building or in front of a mountain range so that he can post it on facebook to see how many “likes” he can get. The goal of the pilgrim is to regain what has become lost in his or her relationship to God.
From time to time, all of us need to regain what becomes lost. As we work in our day by day lives in this world, our personal relationship with God becomes soiled with the filth of the society in which we live. It is for this reason that daily Scripture reading and prayer are important, and it is for this reason that weekly gatherings of worship with other like-minded believers in Christ is important.
Also, it is for this reason that on occasion, a Christian pilgrimage may also become important. Not only do we set the world aside for a few moments so that we can read the Bible and pray. Not only do we leave the world aside for a couple of hours so that we can go to church. In a pilgrimage, we leave the world aside for a more extended time for the purpose of regaining the perspective that we need to maintain in our relationship with God.
We may even endure hardships in the journey, but these hardships also play a key element in a pilgrimage. They help us to reestablish the priority that our relationship with God is of greater importance to us that any personal comfort or enjoyment. A pilgrimage is in fact meant to show us that our relationship with God is everything.
It perhaps is not necessary to make any established center of worship the destination of a Christian pilgrimage, but there is the sense of making a similar journey as other like-minded believers that brings a sense of community to one’s pilgrimage. It is much like going to church. It is indeed true that we can worship God any place. We need not go to a church to do that. Nevertheless, we go to church to meet together with others so that we can worship God as a community of believers.
The Pilgrimage in History
The concept of the pilgrimage is given to us very early in the Scriptures. “Three times a year you shall celebrate a feast to Me,” God instructed Moses (Exodus 23:14). After the temple had been established in Jerusalem, these were feasts that involved annual pilgrimages to that city.
Psalms 120-134 are all what are called the “Songs of Ascents,” or the “Pilgrim Songs.” These were songs that were sung by the worshipers as they ascended the road to Jerusalem in their thrice yearly pilgrimages.
One of the few details that we have recorded for us about the childhood of Jesus was that every year his parents brought him on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. It was on one of those pilgrimages that Jesus had stayed in the temple to ask questions and to learn of the opinions of the teachers (Luke 2:41-52).
The city of Lalibela in Ethiopia was constructed for the purpose of pilgrimages. Thus, what I describe to you is not meant to be in the same order as a travelogue. Rather, it is meant to be a portion of an account of my pilgrimage.
It was not until fairly recent decades that there has been a road to the town of Lalibela that has been better than barely passable. Before just several years ago, there were no vehicles in Lalibela, no gasoline stations, and little to offer in regard to services for travelers. Lately however, much work is being done on the road. I believe much of this is owing to the fact that the church site of Lalibela was named a historic site by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in 1978. Even with this, when Levi and I traveled to that town by backcountry bus, much of the road was still under construction.
It was largely a long and dusty ride of about seven hours from Dessie, with one stop to pee on the side of the road if you needed to, and one more stop later for lunch, or perhaps to look for a more discreet place to pee if you were too embarrassed the first time (if you had managed to hold it for the additional three hours). The entire way we crammed ourselves into school-bus type seats (the old type of school bus) with our luggage on our laps.
As on my other bus rides in Ethiopia, the green plastic bags were occasionally passed back to car-sick passengers in the bus, soon to be filled and then thrown out of the window. Thankfully after that first experience on the bus up from Addis Ababa, I had no further need for a bag to be passed to me. Seemingly I had made my adjustment to the bus rides over the mountains and around the sharp turns of the roads of Ethiopia.
At the bus station in Lalibela, the station manager there was somewhat surprised to see us. “Most foreign tourists come here on the airplane,” he told me.
I suppose that is true, but I was also told by someone that many Ethiopian pilgrims come even on foot. They see this manner of going to Lalibela as part of their pilgrimage.
The Churches of Lalibela
The eleven rock churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia remained largely unknown to the world for many years. I call them rock churches instead of churches made of stone, because they are not stone churches in the traditional sense. These are not the work of stone masons who began the structures by laying a foundation of stone footings, and then building upon the footing with succeeding courses of stone. This is the way in which we usually think of stone churches.
The churches of Lalibela are monolithic in structure. That is to say, they are chiseled and carved from one solid piece of rock. This is not done from the bottom up, but rather from the top down. Most of the structure of the churches was made by first chiseling straight down into the rock of the mountain, or perhaps into a side, leaving only the rock that was to remain as part of the structure. Any material that was chiseled away and not wanted had to be carried away. Only the rock of the building itself remained.
Thus, these churches were not of stones that were cut from the mountain of their origin, made into blocks, and then constructed into a building at another site. The churches of Lalibela were made from stone that was undisturbed from its origins. In this way, it is said that the churches are made from “living stone.”
The clearest example of all that was involved can be best seen in the Church of St George. Here, a nearly forty-foot deep cavity was chiseled straight down into the rock of the mountain, leaving only the middle intact. Until the huge cavity had been completed to its full depth, there was no entrance into the excavation except from the top. That means that all of the rubble from the removed debris had to be carried up and out the top. It was only when the cavity was dug to what would be the floor, forty feet down, that a cave-like entrance was added.
Then slowly and painstakingly, the inner church began to take form. The churches of Lalibela are not crude hollows cut out of rock, but are ornately designed, complete with door and inner supporting arches, elaborate windows and door frames, and interior and exterior columns. The builders very obviously exceeded by far what was merely necessary to make their churches. This was a labor of love, and a labor that held deep spiritual meaning for the people of that time.
However, despite the fact that these were magnificent structures that held deep meanings for their builders, and despite the fact that Ethiopia also had large communities of Christians in the early centuries, 12th century Ethiopia was not medieval Europe, and for hundreds of years the churches of Lalibela remained unknown to the outside world. It was not until the 1520’s that the Portuguese began to explore the area and came across the city.
In the first of these expeditions to this region, the priest Francisco Alvarez who accompanied the group wrote of these marvelous buildings, describing them in some detail until finally concluding with these words:
“I am weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more…but I swear by God, in Whose power I am, what I have written is true.”
After visiting these churches, I will say the same. There are some experiences that cannot be described with even a thousand words, and if a picture is truly worth a thousand words, then even a thousand pictures are not adequate.
The Real Meaning of Pilgrimage
But the most impressive thing about any pilgrimage is not the physical or geographical destination, nor is it the journey itself. The most essential aspect of a pilgrimage is in the renewal of one’s relationship with God. I am aware that I am a bit different than most other Christians. I am a little strange in my own way. The president of a Christian organization where I once worked referred to me as a “modern-day Christian mystic” (I did not know exactly how to take this but he said he meant it as a compliment).
I do not expect that everyone would want to go on a similar pilgrimage as this one. Nevertheless, I would challenge you to put some thought into what you could do in your life to separate yourself from your daily life with the specific and singular purpose of re-establishing and building your relationship with God. You may find that you would also benefit from a pilgrimage.
Your pilgrimage need not even necessarily involve travel. It may instead be setting aside a few or several days to do something completely out of the ordinary for you, and when you can seek to rebuild your walk with God.
From the Songs of Pilgrims, Psalm 139:23-24:
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
See if there be any grievous way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting!