Traveling Nancy

Traveling around the world as far as I can go.

Genna in Lalibela – Jan 7


Ayu and Zerdu picked me up at 6:00 am. I was the only one who wanted to go to the morning celebration at the church. Zerdu explained to me about morning Mass, which had started very early, was just about to end. Some of the pilgrims had gone into the church late last night so they were in the church for the Mass. For all the other pilgrims, it was broadcasted.

We started out together trying to get to a spot where we could see but it was so jammed pack that we couldn’t move forward. It was still dark outside and I noticed these 2 women standing on the side doing private prayers.

Zerdu took me another way around and we lost track of Ayu. I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to get close enough to see anything. It was getting lighter and I noticed these 2 men also praying privately.

We were still too far away and I noticed that some people had climbed up a tree.

We were still to far away for a good view.

Finally we inched close enough to see. I was right by these two beautiful girls. I asked to take a photo of them and at first they were very shy. Then they agreed.


The procession on the ledge below us had begun.

They walked all along the ledge until they came to a spot that looked like the end.

One of the Deacons was carrying a large cross.

They just kept proceeding from the church along the ledge in front of us.

As they were walking along the ledge, they were chanting and dancing.

The special hymn of the day is known as Beza Kullu (literally meaning The Redeemer of All). Dancers, playing metallic sistrum (Egyptian percussion instrument) in their hands, sing the hymns of the holiday, swaying all together from north to south to the rhythm of the big drums. The dance is said to symbolize the praise made by the angels and shepherds on the night of Christmas. The chanters above the courtyard represent the angels of the heaven and those at the bottom symbolize the shepherds of Bethlehem.

Sometimes all of the people would break into a cheer and make a sound with their tongues. The girls that I was standing near asked me to try to make the sound. I made many of the people around me laugh because I cannot do it. The pilgrims around me were so welcoming. Most of them were sitting and I was standing next to them. The girls put their bag down and encouraged me to sit. Zerdu took a photo of me.

I tried but my knees just wouldn’t work in that tight position so I had to stand.

They were not only in there beautiful robes, carrying those umbrellas and crosses, but they also brought out paintings.


I took more photos of girls.

Zerdo explained to me that the people on the ledge with the crowns were couples who had been married in the church early this morning. A requirement of being married in the church is to be pure (virgins).

A couple of women wanted me to take a photo of them. I loved doing this.


We stayed for a long time. I took several videos of the celebration. Then Zerdo told me that we had to leave and let me out through the crowd.

It is very hard for me to put into words the feelings I was experiencing at this celebration. I am not a religious person. The faith of these people is very different from mine. Yet, I was overwhelmed. Over 100,000 people traveling across the country to be in Lalibela for Christmas; the warm welcome I was given; the way they take care of each other with shared food; all filled me up with the spirituality of it all. I feel so enormously privileged to have participated in Genna in Lalibela.

It was almost time for the people to get together for their Christmas feast.

The first Christmas meal is often an early breakfast, eaten by bleary-eyed congregants after returning home. The light meal likely starts with juice made from flaxseed (to oil up the intestines after 40 days of fasting) before moving on to the famously spicy chicken stew doro wot, and it most certainly includes appropriately strong Ethiopian coffee to help welcome the new day. Later on, friends and relatives gather to enjoy a full Genna feast, usually involving a freshly killed lamb for mutton tibs and traditional beverages such as tej (honey wine). I am not sure how many of these pilgrims had a feast in Ethiopia and how many had to wait until they reached their homes – some of the very far away.

This would be one of the few times in the year that they would be eating any meat. I learned that there are 265 days each year when these people observe some kind of fasting by eating only one meal per day. They may not eat anything that is an animal product on those days so; basically it is a vegan diet. Ayu had been observing that diet the whole time he as been driving us from place to place. He could not even have a piece of chocolate candy because it has milk in it.

They took me back to the hotel for a very quick breakfast before we all headed out for a donkey ride up the mountainside.

These 2 boys walked along besides me telling me their story. They said that they are from a distant village where school is not as good as in Lalibela.   They are friends – not siblings. They live together in Lalibela so they can attend the school here. The 17 year-old works carrying luggage and the 12-year-old shines shoes.

I am not sure how true this story was but Ayu told me that it is not uncommon for boys that age to do that.

This is the man who was leading my donkey.


I asked Zerdu to take a photo of all of us..

We all rode the donkeys for a while and then the terrain got too steep so we had to walk. Leigh stayed behind with her donkey and the man who was leading her donkey. Zerdu said we would be back in 2 to 3 hours.

The hike was rocky and steep and at about 10,000 feet of elevation where the view was wonderful.

With my zoom lens, I took a photograph of the church below. You can see the long line of people still waiting (even thought the celebration was over) to get into the tunnel to go inside the church.

This is Zerdu pointing out things in the distance to us.

Zerdu took a photo of us holding our poles behind our backs the way the Ethiopian people do when they are walking along the road.

The hike up there was pretty hard and we were tired. Jane, Sue and I decided that we did not have to go all the way to the 13th C. rock hewn monastery of Ashton Mariam. The walk would have been even steeper.


So we stood around for a bit, purchased cokes for the men who were leading our donkeys from the local people, and got back onto our donkeys. Sue’s donkey decided that he didn’t want her and tried to buck her off. She is a good rider and held on with the help of all of the men. I couldn’t get my camera adjusted quickly enough to catch the event. Whew, she was safe.


Zerdu asked the men to take us back down a flatter terrain so we didn’t have to walk down the steep hillside. The flattop of this mountain is where we would have had to hike. I was glad that we decided not to do the rest of the hike up the hillside. Zerdu had called the man who was with Leigh and asked him to bring her down to meet us almost at the bottom.


We passed homes along the way.


I realized that although we were riding along the flat road, Zerdu was taking shortcuts down the hillside.

Although the terrain was very flat, it was a long ride back to Lalibela. I hadn’t ridden a donkey in about 14 years and I had forgotten how uncomfortable it could be. My legs were tired. My bottom was getting sore. And my neck was feeling the strain. Eventually we decided to get off of the mules and walk the rest of the way down to where Ayu was going to meet us.

After the mule ride we stopped for lunch. Then Ayu drove us to the Nakuto Le’abe Monastery. On the way we passed people getting water from a well.

King Nakuto Le’abe, abdicated his throne in 1270 AD and went to a cave to lead a hermit’s life. This cave has ever since became a monastery and has dramatic settings. It houses one of the most interesting collections of ancient crosses, illustrated manuscripts and other icons some of which are attributed to its founder Nakuto Le’abe.

There was a celebration with drumming and chanting taking place and we so enjoyed participating.

There were also people praying.

We where shown crosses and artifacts.

Holy water is dripping into the cave. Many people were being blessed by it and collecting it. Ayu collected some of it in a bottle. He splashed it onto us. He will also bringing some home to his family.

Our day was not over yet. Ayu took us to the home of Mazda where she lives with her mother, sister, and aunt. It was a very, very small room where 4 people live.

They served home brewed bear.

They served us injera with freshly slaughtered goat meat. It was delicious.

Then Mazda went through all the steps of the coffee ceremony. She roasted the coffee beans and then her sister ground them outside and ground them. She put them into the pot on the fire, added water, did something with water in all of the cups (perhaps rinsing them?), and served us coffee. I don’t usually drink coffee, but this cup of coffee was delicious.

Ayu told us that the coffee ceremony is done every day. The people who don’t work prepare the meals. They cook outside. Perhaps it is a community kitchen. When the person who works gets home, the sit down to a meal and all tell about their day. Members of other people in the small community get together often to share stories.

This is Mazda ‘s Mom.

We went back to the hotel for a shot time and then went out to eat at Ban Ababa which is a Scottish / Ethiopian Restaurant. The food was delicious.

It is hard to believe how much we did this day. We could not have had a better guide than Zerwdu . We are so lucky to have Ayu as our drivers

Author: Nancy Panitch

Traveling has been a passion of Nancy Panitch's life and she loves seeing how people in other cultures live. Her travels have taken her to many places within the United States, Asia, Europe, South America, and Africa. Being around people inspires her and she has much gratitude for the kindred Souls that are joining together with her in body, mind, and heart. She moved from Chicago to Portland, Oregon in 1982. It was one of the best decisions of her life. While in Portland she stays very, VERY busy. She volunteers (Inter-Religious Action Network, Human Rights Council, & ushering for various theaters); attends a Unitarian Universalist church; goes hiking with groups (Cascade Prime Timers & Trails Club of Oregon) and also with individual friends. Book groups, movie group, and bridge groups occupy her time as well. Her quiet activities include yoga, knitting, Sudoku, and reading. She enjoys all of these activities, but making time to see her wonderful 4 grandchildren takes priority over it all. She is happy to share this blog and hopes to encourage others to travel.

3 thoughts on “Genna in Lalibela – Jan 7

  1. What an adventure!


  2. Wow…that was some packed day. My favorite part of your whole trip was the morning trip to see the priests etc. You have such a joy of life and thank you for sharing that joy. Hugs, Shirley


  3. I’m so happy for you for enjoying such an amazing experience. Ann


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