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 early morning celebration. Zerdu explained that the Mass had started very early and 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 (thousands of them) who were outside, it was broadcasted.

We started together trying to get to a spot where we could see the celebrations 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 my hand and let me around another way.  We lost track of Ayu. I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to get close enough to see anything. The sun was rising and it was getting lighter.  I noticed these 2 men also praying privately.

We were still too far away to see the actual celebration when I noticed that some people had climbed up onto a tree stump for a view.

It was hard to get to a place with a good view because it was so difficult to move through the massive crowd.

Finally we inched close enough to see. I was standing right in the middle of the crowd next to these two beautiful girls. I asked permission to take a photo of them but at first they were very shy. After we were together for a while, they agreed to the photo.


The procession on the ledge below us had begun.

Everybody in the procession was walking all along the ledge until they came to a spot that looked like the end but there is actually a staircase on the other side of the edge.

One of the Deacons was carrying a large cross.

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

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

Beza Kullu (literally meaning The Redeemer of All) was the special hymn for the day. Dancers, playing metallic sistrum (Egyptian percussion instrument) in their hands, were singing 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.

Periodically, 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 correctly. 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 sat with them for a while but my knees just wouldn’t work in that tight position so I had to stand.  I am wearing the t-shirt that Zerdu purchased for me.

The priests and deacons were not only wearing beautiful robes and carrying umbrellas and crosses, but they also were displaying large paintings.

I took more photos of girls who were helping me.

Zerdo explained to me that the people who were walking across the ledge wearing crowns on their heads 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).

After a while these women each wanted me to take a photo of them.  I loved showing the photos to them and they love seeing themselves in the photo.


We stayed for a long time. I took several videos of the celebration. Then Zerdu told me that it was time for us to leave and he led 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.  There were possibly up to 100,000 people who had traveled across the country to be in Lalibela for Christmas. I was so warmly welcomed by the people near me at the celebration. I saw how they were take care of each other and so appreciated how they share food in community.   Being a part of this event filled me up with spiritual feelings. I am so enormously privileged to have had the opportunity to participate in Genna in Lalibela.

Soon the people will get together for their Christmas feast. The first Christmas meal is often an early breakfast, eaten by bleary-eyed congregants. Some of them do this after returning home but many are eating in groups right here in Lalibela. The light meal likely starts with juice made from flaxseed (to oil up the intestines after 40 days of fasting).  Then they move on to the famously spicy chicken stew, doro wot, and it will most certainly includes appropriately strong Ethiopian coffee to help welcome the new day. Later on, friends and relatives will gather to enjoy a full Genna feast, usually involving a freshly killed lamb to make mutton tibs and traditional beverages such as tej (honey wine). I am not sure how many of these pilgrims will have their feast in Ethiopia and how many will have 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 the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians would be eating any meat. There are 265 days each year when these people observe some kind of fasting by eating only one meal per day. During the fasting days they may not eat anything that is an animal product so. basically. it is a vegan diet. Ayu has been observing that diet the whole time he as been driving us from place to place. He could not even have a piece of the chocolate candy that Leigh shared with us because it has milk in it.

Ayu and Zerdu took me back to the hotel for a very quick breakfast before we all headed out for a donkey ride up the mountainside.  We were on our way to Ashton Mariam.  Ayu chose to have us do this in the morning before the weather became too hot.

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 there. The 17 year-old works carrying luggage and the 12-year-old shines shoes so that they can pay their rent.

I am not sure how true this story was but Ayu told me that it is not uncommon for boys that age to go to a place out of their village for school. Perhaps they were telling me a true story or perhaps they were wanting me to give them money.  But they never actually asked me for any money.

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 up the hill next to our donkeys. Leigh stayed behind with her donkey and the man who was leading her donkey. Zerdu told her that we would be back in 2 to 3 hours and to be sure to wait with her donkey and the man.  He did not want to lose her again.

The hike was rocky and steep and we reached 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 though the Genna celebration was over) to get into the tunnel and 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 fairly difficult and we were tired. Jane, Sue and I decided that we did not have to go all the way to the 13th Century. rock-hewn monastery of Ashton Mariam. The rest of the walk would have been even steeper.

So we stood around for a bit, purchased drinks (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 stayed on the donkey.  All of the men surrounded her but I think she had it all under control.. I couldn’t get my camera adjusted quickly enough to catch the event until she was safely and solidly in the saddle.

Zerdu asked the men to lead us on our donkeys back down a flatter terrain so we didn’t have to walk down the steep hillside. If we had continued walking we would have had to hike up to the flat part of the mountain in the photo below.  I was glad that we decided not to do the rest of the hike up the hillside. Zerdu called the man who was with Leigh and asked him to bring her down to meet us at a spot just before we would reach Lalibela.

As we rode the donkeys on the road, we passed homes along the way.


I realized that while we were riding along the flat road, Zerdu was taking shortcuts by running down the hillsides.

Although the terrain where we were riding was very flat, it was a long, long ride back to Lalibela. I hadn’t ridden a donkey in about 14 years (Grand Canyon  ride to Phantom Ranch in 2004) and I had forgotten how uncomfortable it could be. My legs muscles were tired. My bottom was getting sore. My neck was feeling the strain. I was wishing that I had just followed Zerdu trekking  down the shortcuts. Eventually we all 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 chose to take us to the Nakuto Le’abe Monastery today rather than in them morning because the drive in the morning will be long.  On the way we passed people getting water from a well.

I learned that King Nakuto Le’abe, abdicated his throne in 1270 AD and went to a cave to lead a hermit’s life. This cave has become a monastery with a dramatic settings. Nakuto Le’abe Monastery 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 really enjoyed participating.

Some of the people were praying.

We were shown several crosses and artifacts.

These are the drums they were playing during the celebration.

Holy water was dripping down into the cave from the walls and ceiling. Many people were being blessed by it and also collecting it in containers to take home. Ayu collected some of it in a bottle to bring home to his family. He splashed all of us with it.

Our day was not over yet. Ayu took us to the home of Mazda where she lives with her mother, sister, and aunt.  This is her mom and aunt.

It was a very, very small home where 4 people live.


When we arrived, the served home-brewed beer which Jane, Sue, and Leigh tasted.

They also served injera with freshly slaughtered goat meat to us.


It was delicious.

Then Mazda went through all the steps of the coffee ceremony. She roasted the coffee beans both on a burner outside.

and also in side the house.

Her sister took the roasted beans outside and ground them with a mortar and pestle

She put the ground beans into the pot, added water to the pot, and cooked it over the fire.

She poured  water into each of the cups (perhaps rinsing them?).


Then the served coffee to all of us. 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 people who work get home, everybody sits down to a meal and tell each other about their day. Members of several families in the small community often get together to share stories.

This is Mazda ‘s Mom at the entrance to their home.

We all had a wonderful time.

Ayu took us back to the hotel for a short time to rest and then picked us up to go out to eat at Ben Abeba which is a Scottish/Ethiopian Restaurant. There are many levels in the restaurant.

I walked around the restaurant looking for a friend who was staying at the same hotel in Lalibela and even got a bit lost finding my way back to our table.  The food was delicious.

It is hard to believe that we did so much on this day. We could not have had a better guide than Zerdu.  Everyday I think about how lucky we are to have Ayu as our driver.


Lalibela – Jan 6th

Over 100,000 pilgrims come to Lalibela to celebrate both the Orthodox Ethiopian Christmas and King Lalibela.  Wow – we we are here..

Ayu drove us up to the area of the rock churches where we met our guide, Zerdu.   We started walking towards the churches. This is the day before the Ethiopian Christmas. There were pilgrims everywhere.  Leigh asked if there was a place where she could just rest in the shade and wait for us.  Zerdu found 2 men to stay with her and told her to wait under a tree in the shade.

The pilgrims were sitting all over the ground.

These two women were sitting under a tree in the shade.

They were mostly dressed in white. I love taking photos of their faces.


We had to wait for Zerdu to buy our tickets so that we could enter the churches.

Many pilgrims were standing on the walls.

We knew we would have to get into lines and pass through narrow passages with the pilgrims who were waiting to get into one of the churches.

Everybody was so jammed together and we had to follow them.. I knew that this was going to be quite a day.

It was hard for Jane, Sue, and I to stay together with Zerdu. There were many stairs to go down and there were shoes left all over the stairs. You can’t enter a church wearing shoes.

I asked Zerdu how all of these people ever found their own shoes again and he told me that when they leave the church, they just take any pair that fits their feet.  We had to take off our shoes as we entered each church.  Zerdu took a man with us who watched our shoes and our poles when we entered a church or didn’t want to carry the poles with us.

There are actually 11 rock-hewed churches in Lalibela. They date back to the 11th and 12th centuries. Their building is attributed to King Lalibela who set out to construct a ‘New Jerusalem’ after God apparently appeared to him in a dream sometime after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the holy Land. Many of the churches are named after ones that are in Jerusalem. The city is, of course, named after King Lalibela.

The churches that we visited in the past few days were carved into a mountain (semi-monolithic). The churches in Lalibela were hewn from the living rock of monolithic blocks. These blocks were further chiseled out, forming doors, windows, columns, various floors, roofs etc. This gigantic work was further completed with an extensive system of drainage ditches, trenches and ceremonial passages, some with openings to hermit caves and catacombs. Amazingly, they only had hand tools like hammers and chisels.

It would have been much easier to take photos of both the inside and outside of these incredible churches at another time of the year when all of the pilgrims were not there. But it is the pilgrims that made the experience so rewarding.

This of the top of the Church of Bete Giyorgis (Church of St. George). It is in the shape of a cross.

You can see one of the original drainpipes that was installed on the top of St. George. These drainpipes are on three sides. Because they church is higher on the 4th side there was no need for one. It is amazing how brilliant the people were at the time these churches were carved out of the rock.

This is a side-view of Bete Giyorgis

I think this is Bete Medhame Alem


UNESCO covered the church with a metal covering. The people of Lalibela are not happy with this because it really distracts from the beauty of the church. I agree with them.

This is a photo of Bete Medhame Alem that I took from the web.

As we came out of one of the churches, a man wanted to take a photo with me.

This round structures are in the style of King Lalibela’s house. The pilgrims who arrive many days in advance get to stay in these houses. All of the others sleep on the ground all around the churches.

I think this “Fertility Pool” is still used. It is believed that it helps women who are having trouble conceiving a child. I read that the Fertility Pool is especially notable as once a year, hundreds of naked women struggling to conceive are lowered by rope into a pool, while hundreds of men look on from the cliffs above.

In one of the churches, this priest was blessing people. He is holding a special cross.

The ceiling, pillars, and inside of the arches were amazing.

To enter each church, we had to patiently wait in very long, packed lines.

Zerdu actually was able to get us into a place under the tent cover for an incredible experience. The priests and deacons of the church were gathering for a celebration. We arrived early to get a place to sit and watch the priests greeting each other. They brought out special drums and sistrum. There were very few other tourists there with us. The ceremony was being broadcast throughout the area and on TV.

This is the High Priest of Lalibela.

Here he is blessing one of the many other priests.

This is one of the special drums that they used today.

Some of the priests sit in these chairs.

One of the priests let me photograph his sistrum.

Many priests sat around and visited with each other.

A bell was rung to let everybody know it was time to begin the ceremony.

The priests had come from many areas of Ethiopia. Here are a couple others with the High Priest of Lalibela.

The singing began.

The drumming began

We watched for a long time.  A few of the people who were standing next to me left with their guide but Zerdu encouraged us to stay longer.

We were very glad we stayed because after a bit, the dancing began. The high priests moved back and forth across the floor ad they raised their prayer sticks and played their sistrum.

One of the priests who was watching with us gave me his prayer stick and systrum (or sistrum). What fun.

And the bowing, drumming, chanting, and dancing continued.

Zerdu finally said it was time for us to leave.

To get out we had to walk across this grating.

We continued walking through the area where the pilgrims were camping. Zerdu told us that the people of Lalibela prepare food (all vegan) for the other pilgrims to eat at a very low cost to them.



This woman was showing me what she had cooked.

We continued walking through the area. These people are selling prayer sticks.

For a bit of fun, Susan pointed out these pilgrims with Santa hats.

My favorite photos are still the ones of their beautiful faces.

When we got back to the tree where we left Leigh, we could not find her.  Zerdu looked all over and asked several people if they had seen her and the two men he left with her.  Zerdu was concerned and frustrated but after looking for a while, we continued walking with the crowds to another church

We had to walk through a tunnel.

We had to come climb out of one of the tunnels.  Here is a man doing that.

Before we entered the next church, we had so much fun watching the women dancing and chanting outside the church

It was too dark and crowded to take any photos on the inside of the church

We took photos with other people while we were waiting to go into one of the churches.


Zerdu then explained that there was another church to see but we would have to go through another tunnel to get to it. Normally it would take less than 15 minutes, but today it would take over 1½ hours. We, of course, decided not to get in that long line.

On our way back to the jeep, I took a close-up of one of those typical houses.

We went back to find Leigh but we could not find her.  Sue, Jane, Zerdu, and I were very concerned.  Zerdu made several phone calls and then we found Ayu.  Ayu had received a call from another Vast Ethiopian driver and we discovered that that driver was taking Leigh back to the hotel.

When Leigh returned to the hotel, she told me that she had been waiting on a wall near where we left her. She had also been worried. We had looked all over when we were at the tree and I don’t know how we could have missed her.

After dinner Sue Jane and I went back for the evening celebration.

We again walked through the crowds of pilgrims.

Many of them were sleeping so that they could be ready to go to the early morning Mass.

This man was selling torches to take to the celebration.

It was very, very difficult to walk over the uneven ground, up uneven stone steps, over that grating we had crossed in the morning, and maneuver through the massive crowds. But Zerdu got us to a place where we could actually watch the celebration. We were standing way up high but could still see.

I moved a bit closer and found a space to sit down while I was watching.  The Ethiopian man sitting next to me knew very little english but we were able to communicate how much we were enjoying the celebration.

I think I could have stayed for at least another hour or more, but Jane and Sue were standing and really wanted to go back to the hotel.

On the way out I took a photo of these other pilgrims who were watching.

What an amazing experience. Zerdu was a fantastic guide.  I know we could have had much more time to experience and photograph the churches in Lalibela if we had come when it wasn’t so crowded, but I loved the experience of being here with these devoted people.