Those Amazing Rock Churches of Lalibela
Some 400 miles from Addis is the city of Lalibela whose airport terminal in 1966 was a tin roofed hut. Here in the 13th century King Lalibela ordered construction of twelve monolithic churches. His intention was to construct (and conceal under ground) a ‘New Jerusalem’ after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Unlike the pyramids built with quarried stone blocks, these medieval churches were carved by skilled craftsmen out of solid living rock.
Originally concealed deep under ground, the churches remain holy places of Ethiopian Orthodox Christian pilgrimage. More accessible to pilgrims today, I had to crawl on my hands and knees to reach a subterranean darkness. Once there, I was transported to the Middle Ages. In the dim shadows a priest stood holding a torch in front of an altar surrounded by well preserved religious wall paintings. He looked like he’d been standing there for 500 years! The monks tell you the Ark of the Covenant is similarly hidden in a monastery in the ancient kingdom of Axum, where Queen Sheba lived among the obelisks in the 10th century BC. A powerful empire in northern Ethiopia, Axum played a vital role in international trade from the 1st century until the latter part of the 1st millennium I(100-940 CE). Ethiopia is indeed the old land of legends that Indy Jones missed.
Crocodile Hunters of the Baro River (Ethiopia/Sudan Border)
Though we spent considerable time at work or on embassy tennis courts, how long can you stay in a place that has one disco, no streetlights and hyenas lurking in the shadows? My friend Alan was a stringer for the Associated Press based in Addis and we backpacked often. When he learned that two Yugoslav brothers, Alek and Jan Rankoviç, made their living hunting crocodiles on the Baro River, he thought it would make a good story and a fun trip. Ravenous jaws of hyenas and snapping mandibles of crocs are not my idea of fun. But Alan’s considerable coaxing convinced me to join him and Joe Frankel, a U.S. Trade agent, for a safari to the South Sudan-Ethiopia border. Two Ethiopian friends from my office joined us. Relatively quiet in 1965, today our embassy will advise you not to go there.
Ethiopian Airlines pilots could take off and land on plateaus the size of postage stamps. Armed with malaria pills and insect repellent, we flew in one of their twin engine DC-3s crammed with farmers, chickens and goats, from Addis Ababa at 8,000 feet, to a low plateau where a Land Rover waited to drive us further down to the tropical Baro River. Two Peace Corps volunteers had worked in a nearby village. They knew the river was infested with crocodiles and were repeatedly warned not to swim there. When they disappeared we knew to heed the warning sign. Steamy tropics notwithstanding: No Swimming!
On our first night after supper around an enormous fire, we had unexpected guests. Herdsmen and farmers, the Anuak tribe are a Luo Nilotic ethnic group who have inhabited parts of East Africa and the upper Nile for centuries. They trickled in to our little circle until we were surrounded by 25 or 30 curious blue-black naked bodies covered in ghostly white ash. The Rankoviç brothers had invited them to dance for us. In the flickering firelight they started drumming and plucking their primitive instruments while moving their bodies very slowly to the rhythm of the music. As the beat got faster and the dancing more erotic, they kicked up a cloud of white ash and dust that settled over all of us. One of the women broke away from her African chorus line, removed a large thick ivory bracelet from her forearm and slipped it on mine, up to and over my elbow. I’m not into ivory from animals, but to refuse the gift would have been an insult.
The following night we were invited to accompany the brothers on a crocodile hunt. That morning they had given us a tour of their warehouse. The spectacle of hundreds of carcasses hanging up to dry freaked me out. But everyone was going and I didn’t want to be left alone in the camp.
It was dark on the river when we scrambled into several small boats-just we humans and the insects. I noticed the hunters had razor sharp pointed teeth that made them look ferocious. They carried lanterns and thick heavy clubs. Soon the river was swarming with crocodiles attracted to the lanterns. The lights hypnotized the animals long enough for the men to club them between the eyes. After stunning the animals, they shot them once so as not to damage the skins. The scene was bloody and nauseating and I threw up over the side of the boat. Although crocodiles are not my favorite wildlife, it was too much for my stomach. I always regretted witnessing that mercenary slaughter, which today in Africa has reached unimaginable proportions among all animal species.
The final night, asleep in our camp beds, I awakened to a strange monotonous drone. Through the mosquito netting I saw two Anuak men with ornate headdresses sitting beside a small fire. They were chanting and throwing amulets into the flames. Alan had heard them too when he reached out his hand to mine. “Don’t worry,” he whispered. “They’re medicine men sending us protection for a safe journey home.” And it was.