Cave church at Imrahana Christos
According to the author Graham Hancock, nothing like the rock churches of Lalibela has ever been built in Ethiopia, either before or since the twelfth century. And yet I knew that Ethiopia had been building so-called “rock churches” since the fifth century. Hancock said that these churches were much more primitive than the rock churches of Lalibela, but I wanted to see for myself.
During my stay in Lalibela I learned that one such edifice, the Church of Imrahana Christos, was located about forty kilometers outside the city. I wanted to go visit it, but we were running low on cash. The morning after we finished our tour of the rock churches of Lalibela, my wife Yaa and I went to the only automatic teller machine in all of Lalibela and were disappointed to learn that we could withdraw a maximum of only two thousand birr. Since our next destination was Axum, and we weren’t sure if we could find an ATM there either, we reluctantly shelved our plans.
What makes The Wife such a great traveling companion is that she makes friends wherever she goes. We returned to the hotel, and I did 100 pushups and ran two miles in the company of a couple of local boys, and when I returned my wife was standing on the front porch of our hotel, talking with a dark-haired stranger. She introduced him to me as Gil, one-half of a newly-wedded French dual career couple –two professors of theology, no less – who also wanted to see Imrahana Christos. We agreed to split the costs, and the trip was back on.
We had lunch together with Gil and his wife, Anna, and after lunch our faithful guide, Endalew, joined us. Gil and Anna had already retained him to be their guide to the rock churches of Lalibela the next day. Endalew had arranged a van to take us to Imrahana Christos. He offered to serve as our guide, although he noted that a guide was not required for this excursion (a guide is required for the town of Lalibela itself). After some discussion, we agreed to retain his services, and shortly after lunch we departed.
After leaving the outskirts of town, we had a white-knuckled ride past one hairpin turn after another, and then as the road leveled off somewhat, the real fun began. The carefully graded dirt road morphed into a rutted path strewn with countless boulders the size of a man’s head. After half an hour of being bounced up and down, my head hurt; after an hour, I was seeing stars.
At about this point we passed another so-called “cave church,” this one dating from the fifth century CE. Annabelle asked if we could visit that one as well. Endalew said we could, although we’d have to pay an admission fee.
“Everything in this country costs money,” Anna whined. I found her attitude perplexing. Is everything in France for free?
Endalew began courteously explaining to her that the admission fees went to pay for the upkeep of the churches, as well as the priests’ salaries. He was cut short by Gil. “How much do you think the priest here are paid?” he demanded of our guide. Who cares, I thought to myself. Whatever it was, I doubted that it amounted to two percent of Gil’s salary.
Our guide began “The maximum salary of priests here is about a thousand birr a month –“
“You are wrong,” Gil snapped. “I was talking to the bishop this morning. It is more than that.” Endalew began politely explaining to Gil that he was misinformed, but Gil cut him off. “I respect your opinion,” Gil snapped, in a most disrespectful manner. “Don’t tell the tourists wrong information.
I was scratching my head at the spectacle of two professors of theology, for crying out loud, visiting another country’s most holy sites and behaving like a couple of crabby dyspeptic tourists squabbling over the price of gimcracks in an airport gift shop. I also couldn’t see the wisdom of insulting our hosts as our van was skirting sheer precipices on a road so bumpy that traversing it felt like going down a flight of steps on a cafeteria tray.
Mercifully, we arrived in the village soon after that, and began climbing up the hill towards Imrahana Christos. Endalew explained to us that the church was carved out of solid rock, with the help of the angels and God, in the eleventh century, about a hundred years before the rock churches of Lalibela.
We went up
Finally we reached the church, which was sitting in the mouth of an enormous cavern.
A stream of water flowing directly out of the rocks above us dripped down across the mouth of the cave. I asked him if this was a naturally occurring cave, or was it man-made? It was man-made, he assured me. Not being a geologist, I had no basis for deciding how much credence to give this statement.
Endalew explained to us that the church was built from wood and marble imported from Jerusalem. Wait a minute, I thought to myself – just a few minutes ago you were telling us that the church was carved out of solid rock?
Obviously, that claim was as phony as a three-dollar bill. This was a completely ordinary stone-and-wood church, sitting in the mouth of a cave, which may or may not have been man-made.
We walked around the back of the church, and Endalew showed us a boneyard, containing skulls which he said were a few of those from some five thousand pilgrims who made the journey just for the privilege of dying here.
Afterwards, the priest let us in, and showed us a cross made out of bronze, which Endalew told us dated from the time the church itself was built.
We’d seen all there was to see, and we began the descent down the mountain. Gil and Anna lagged behind for some reason or another, and Endalew confided to us that he had had enough of those two for one lifetime. They’d have to find someone else to be their guide for the rest of their trip. As far as he was concerned, they could keep their money.
We all settled back into the van, and braced ourselves for the bone-jarring ride home. My head ached, but I was glad I came. I had found the answer to my question. I still didn’t have any proof that any Templar ever set foot in Ethiopia, but I had seen with my own eyes: this “rock church” had about as much resemblance to the magnificent structures of Lalibela as a stone cottage has to a skyscraper.
As for the Knights Templar: in 1306, a delegation of Ethiopian clerics met with Pope Clement in Avignon, France. We don’t know what they talked about, but we do know that within a year, the order was outlawed, its substantial assets seized, its members tortured and put to death. Within a short time, the Order of the Knights Templar ceased to exist.
Or did it?
This is the fifth of eight parts
All photos by author