Easter in Lalibela, Ethiopia
18th March 2017
The religious rituals that take place in Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches to mark Easter may be what the town is famous for. But there is so much more to Easter in Lalibela. Girma Tadele grew up in the town and shares his experiences of this special time.
This year in Ethiopia, Lent started on 20th February. This means there’s no meat to be had, the bars are quiet, and there’s no music. The place has gone from a buzzing little town to feeling like a meditating monastery. It’s a time for religious purification. From the first day of Lent, the locals attend a two-and-half-hour mass every afternoon on weekdays, and early on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Lalibela’s features are all named after holy places in the Middle East – from the Mount of Olives, Mount Tabor, Bethlehem and the River Jordan to Golgotha. All of the places Jesus preached and passed are referenced in this little town. Not only do all these places from the New Testament exist here, but so do many ancient practices and deep religious principles.
The most moving and interesting time to be in Lalibela is in the Holy Week. This is the week leading up to Easter. It starts on Palm Sunday (9 April this year) and ends on Holy Saturday. The excitement of celebrating Easter builds over this week, even though the fasting gets harder. The most devoted Christians eat only one meal a day, usually in the late afternoon or evening.
Maundy Thursday is my favourite day of the Holy Week. Back in the day, as a young boy, I used to help my mother bake a special offering for the Last Supper – “the big round bread”. The mingled smells of talo (similar to bay leaves) used to cover the bread, koba (banana leaves), smoky cow dung fires and fresh bread must be one of the most distinctive smells of Ethiopia. The bread is decorated with 12 marks, to represent the 12 Apostles.
For a small child, Maundy Thursday is a big feast. Not only is there the delicious fresh bread, there is also the heavenly tasting gulban – a mixture of boiled grains. Families celebrate the Last Supper with specially prepared foods, enjoyed only once a year, and there’s an abundance of food for the first time in 35 days. Some grownups, including my father, eat their last meal tonight. They won’t eat or drink again until Sunday morning. Personally, I have never tried this; I have fasted from the Friday to Sunday, but never through from Maundy Thursday.
On Good Friday things get noisy. In the morning children move around Lalibela singing a morning song called “Misha Musho”. This doesn’t happen in Addis or in other towns in the country. I grew up singing it every Good Friday morning. Us kids would hold two flat rocks and bang them together while we sang. The song is quite moving. It translates roughly as: “Jesus has been captured by the Romans, he’s got broken bones and a lots of wounds, we are here to ask you to contribute for his food”. There’s just the one verse. Normally people give teff, shiro and berbere flour in return for the children singing outside their house.
Good Friday is also the day of asking for forgiveness. People like me, who don’t practice their religion daily, go to church on Good Friday to bow and kneel down in front of the altar as many times as possible, to show humility and ask for forgiveness.
On Holy Saturday, if you’re up early in the morning, you will be presented with a long green grass from the Churches’ holy pools. It represents the crown of thorns put on the head of Jesus on Good Friday, and you should tie it around your head. Today, the cattle and goods market is bustling. People are buying their meat and chicken for Easter Sunday breakfast, and their goat or sheep for the Easter Sunday afternoon feast. People will also be buying 12 eggs to cook with the chicken. Again, 12 to represent the 12 Apostles.
The evening of Holy Saturday is the time for religious devotion. In and around the churches of Lalibela there is a moving celebration and a transition into the happy feasting of Easter Sunday. I can only say: go and see it, because I don’t have the words to express what it feels like. It is just biblical.
See you in Lalibela.
Join Girma in Lalibela for Easter. We have a few spaces still available on our 2017 tour. Find out more