My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Feast Day in Lalibela at Na'akuto La'ab

all the white clad pilgrims on the road on way to church
This was the most unusual day of the whole trip - something none of us had ever experienced before. And what an experience it was. Friday 13th November 2015 - (3 Hadar 2008 in the Ethiopian calendar) the third Ethiopian day of the third Ethiopian month and an important feast day for the Orthodox Christian community in Lalibela, so 
we change our itinerary in order that we can absorb for ourselves this extraordinary spiritual event.
the church inside the cave we are making our way to
I wrote in my diary for the day:
Overwhelming, spiritually, physically and mentally.
Frightening - the crush of people - tiny children in among it all - the policeman who looked after our shoes for us - the guns, batons and high security around the church entrance.
the crush on the path down to the
Ululating, the long high pitched and wavering sound, almost trilling, that comes out of the mouths of the priests and people. We heard it here in the church, from the priests, as they swayed in unison in a curious spiritual dance, and we would wake up later in the trip in the very early hours of the morning to hear the same sound as people made their way in the early dawn to a local church above our hotel in Gondar. Somehow or other the tongue and uvula together can create this sound. I wonder how long it takes to learn the technique? It is very much a feature of worship in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
resting on way to church - in background
Then there was the rhythmic music of the drums and the sistrum, shaken vigorously by the cantors as they danced, and the tall prayer sticks often used to keep that rhythm.

In fact all the emotions felt thoroughly assaulted by the end of our experience….
So much so that many of us felt very much in need of a strong coffee and a quiet place!   

pilgrims climb back from church in right
But I'm getting ahead of myself. As we drive from our hotel to the little cave church of Na'akuto La'ab about 6km south of Lalibela towards the airport, we are at once struck by the columns of people, nearly all dressed in their white gabbi or shama, the white cloths worn toga like by men and women respectively (Netela are similar but have brightly embroidered borders). All these men, women and children are streaming along the road as far as the eye can see, coming from every direction, all making their way towards the church, giving the appearance of a long white slow moving snake hugging the curves of the road into the distance. It is a 90 minute walk for them from Lalibela along the tarmac road. Many take short cuts across the countryside along what appear to be well worn pathways. Along the way we stop to buy candles from one of the many vendors plying their wares. We buy ours from a boy who is visually impaired, chosen by our guide, and it is good to support him in this small way.
taking time out by the side of the path
The little church we are making our way towards was built by Na'akuto La'ab, the nephew of King Lalibela and his successor, although as with many sites in Ethiopia there seem to be several conflicting traditions around his reign and the foundation of the church which bears his name. 
inside the cave, outside the church
The coach turns off the main road and we bump along for a short while on a rough track before disembarking to walk the rest of the way to the church. As we make our way down the rough track along the cliff edge we are jostled from all directions, and this is the only time on the whole trip when we are warned to keep valuables close to us. People all around us are going in our direction, but there are just as many coming back up the path, and there is no lane discipline! The services here carry on for a long time and people come and go as they please, it seems. Some simply go to receive a blessing. We are given dust - it may be charcoal - to mark a cross on our foreheads, reminiscent of our own Ash Wednesday service - "dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return" - this tradition originated in Old Testament times and ashes then as now symbolise mourning, mortality and penance. 

note man in orange - priest - holding
prayer staff
Somehow we all arrive through the crowds at the mouth of the cave and manage to fight our way inside! It's a struggle and somewhat frightening but we stay inside long enough to experience the ululating, the dance and the music. But very soon we are glad to force our way back out side away from the crush which was actually alarming for some of us who are not so tall. As I left, carefully sidestepping around a lady sitting on the floor, totally hidden from most of us in the heaving mass of the crowd, I was astonished to see she had a very small child hugging close in to the folds of her garment. I feel very sure that there must be some injuries in such a crush but we survived intact!
villagers gather at top of path to church

And we marvelled at the shoes strewn everywhere along the path to be found again after coming out of the church. We have to assume that as long as the men, women and children all find a pair that fit and perhaps are the right colour they are broadly happy. The shoes are mostly plastic flip flops or plastic sandals, mostly brightly coloured. There is no way they could hope to find the exact pair they started the day off with!!

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1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an amazing experience. This seems more like an Islamic/Muslim experience than Christian. I'm thinking of the Haj.