Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Christmas in Lalibela

Celebrating Christmas in Lalibela is more than just a Christmas celebration. For the Ethiopians, it is about making a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to this old city, very often walking weeks to reach it on time for the ceremony. Thousand of people flock to the city on Christmas Eve, where a very big market takes place. The cattle market profits from the festive atmosphere. It teems with donkeys, cows, horses, goats and sheep, hens and cocks. Vendors sell white cloth everywhere, as well as religious artifacts for a handful of birrs.

The main ceremony takes place between Bete Maryam and Bete Medhane Alem. The congregation assembles in the vicinity of the church. The higher and lower clergy as well as the debteras, non-ordinated priests in charge of the rituals, assemble on the ridge between the two churches, where they sing, dance and pray. Their incantations are echoed by you-you choirs. They wear ceremony clothes, hold crosses at the end of sticks, ceremony umbrellas. The singing is accompanied by drums and sistrums, an instrument made of a handle and a metallic U-shaped frame containing small rings that clank and jangle when being shaken. Sistrums were already used in the Pharaonic time in Egypt.

For the couples who will be married on this day, it is an immense honor.

The benediction is given by the archbishop of Addis, and then the people leave. Before leaving, many of them collect water from a basin at Bete Maryam. This basin was used to baptize people by immersion. Its sacred water is collected by the pilgrims to be brought home together with water dripping from the rock at the church of Neakulo Leab, six kilometers from Lalibela.

Bete Gyorgis, the church of Georges (first picture above), was built later than the others. According to legend, Georges on his horse would have appeared to king Lalibela in his sleep and complained about not having his own church. King Lalibela would then have has Bete Gyorgis built. This last of the rock-hewn churches encompasses all the know-how of its builders.

Lalibela, Ethiopia, January 2012.

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