Ethiopian Easter: a personal account

17th September 2017

Tom Hilton joined us in Lalibela to experience the celebration of Easter – or Fasika as it’s known locally.  Here he generously shares his impressions of his time in Ethiopia’s New Jerusalem.

I had been to Lalibela once before, but was eager to bring a group of friends to show them the wonders of the rock-hewn churches and stunning landscapes for themselves. Lalibela has to be seen to be believed. This time would be particularly special, however, as we were visiting at Easter – one of the most sacred times of year in the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar.

     

In the days leading up to Easter, the devout of Lalibela are fasting – although ironically, for the visitor, this makes Ethiopian dining even more delicious, as wonderful vegetarian options abound. Our group shared countless beyaynetu platters – a variety of vegetarian dishes served up with the traditional enjera. Once the fasting was over, we longed for this otherwise hard-to-find dish!

Meanwhile, on the day before Easter, a chaotic market is underway in the centre of Lalibela – an abundance of spices, coffee, and, crucially, goats. The locals bid for goats to take away and prepare for Easter feasts as they break their fast in the middle of the night. We pick our way through the crowds, a surprisingly orderly and welcoming affair that will be gone without a trace by morning.

In the afternoon, we tour the churches – a breath-taking spectacle and incredible feat of architecture. As you make your way through the complex, your mind struggles to comprehend the visionary craftsmanship that took place here almost a thousand years ago, whilst silent worshippers, shrouded in white, continue to drift between the churches today. On the Easter weekend, there is a feeling of something special to come as the sun begins to go down.

Before the festivities of the night, we return to our hotel and refuel on more delicious beyaynetu, this time accompanied with a range of tasty Ethiopian beers. We join our tour guides for drinks and discuss the history of this fascinating country. We hear stories of the guides growing up together in Lalibela, and learn about the fast-changing face of modern Ethiopia. The hotel owner hands out a complimentary local brew, and a celebratory atmosphere builds into the night.

As midnight approaches, we head back to the churches. These scenes have now been transformed into something unforgettable. Worshippers in ghostly white crowd the subterranean churches, many laying huddled together on the floor, weary from fasting. Hundreds of candles light this sacred vigil, whilst chants and slow drums drift up into the night air. Even in its most sacred and moving moments, Ethiopian hospitality shines through. As visitors, we are welcomed into the midst of all of this, and any hesitant fear of intrusion melts away.

Eventually we walk home, humbled and moved by this spectacle. The ceremonies will run through the night, but we decide a few hours’ sleep is needed before an early morning rendezvous with our guide, who has insisted that we join him at his family home for Easter Sunday breakfast.

At 7am, we arrive his house, greeted by his beaming smile. He is tired, but running on the energy of the festival, and has finally broken his fast. Next comes one of the most lavish and delicious breakfasts I’ve ever had – an array of traditional dishes keep arriving, including – of course – goat from yesterday’s market. Homemade honey wine, tej, accompanies the breakfast, followed by glasses of the powerful spirit, ouzo.

Eventually we stumble into the morning sun of Lalibela, blown away once again by this stunning country and the generosity of its people.”

To join us for Easter in Lalibela 2018, contact Girma. (Ethiopian Good Friday falls on 6 April in 2018, a week after Easter in the Western world.)

Tom Hilton, the author of this post

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