The chapel is called Bete Giyorgis and it is to be found in the foothills of the Simien Range in north western Ethiopia. This part of this land of emperors is arid and desiccated and yet pilgrims from across the interior travel enormous distances to be in this place. The region is called Lalibela…and it is beautiful.
Ancient Orthodox Christianity is said to have taken root in Northern Ethiopia around the 6th Century AD. In the 12th and 13th Century a series of ornate rock hewn sanctuaries were carved into the hillsides at Lalibela and these archaic and evocative buildings continue today to draw the faithful to worship.
The most iconic of these is Bete Giyorgis…named for Saint George. Upon arrival one descends a series of stone steps to the site. Red winged Starlings and Black winged Lovebirds call from the surrounding vegetation and Bearded Vultures ride the montane thermals above. Orthodox chanting by apprentice priests in the background gives the scene a raw and ethereal beauty.
From above Bete Giyorgis is shaped like a cross and is subterranean…carved from bedrock below ground level. To enter the sanctuary, one descends still further along a winding earthen tunnel passing wizened Ethiopian women shrouded in white as they answer the call to prayer. Once below one stands alongside the monolith surrounded by the steep walls of the soil profile. It is a church in a hole in the ground.
Shoes are removed and then one enters. The interior is refrigerator cold and gloomy. The hand-hewn windows are small. The rough rock floors are draped with burgundy coloured carpets. Tapestries adorn the walls alongside ancient engravings expounding the stories of the saints. Senior priests swathed in white cotton chant and genuflect in the tight, dark interior as a wave of claustrophobia descends.
One realises in the moment that one is witnessing something older than measured time…an unchanged faith and culture of belief emanating from a time before the written histories of this most magnificent part of the Horn of Africa.