The angels of Ethiopia are a demanding bunch. Even before a pushy seraphim ordered the construction of a new Jerusalem, another heavenly host was petitioning for a church to be built not just atop a lake, but inside a cave, too. King-priest-saint Yemrehanna Kristos (the namesake of the site) was only too happy to oblige and managed to find this very particular piece of real estate along the flank of a hill in the rugged hills of the Amhara region, not far from Lalibela.
Getting to Yemrehanna Kristos from Lalibela used to be significantly more difficult, involving, at a minimum, a day-long donkey ride. In 2000, a road was built and while much of it is smooth and steady, there's a part (a long part) that justifies paying a pretty high price to get there ($70, ask around the local hotels and gather up more companions to split the cost) — I'm pretty sure that any car or van making the trip needs a new suspension immediately afterward.
But however much you get jolted around, the drive is magnificent, taking you through a landscape of craggy, arid mountains and flashes of tiny villages and people living a pastoral lifestyle.
There's a small village at the base of the hill, also called Yemrehanna Kristos, made up of a smattering of houses, some modern, some traditional. We were invited into this angel-bedecked tukul and greeted warmly, though I'll fess up that we were promptly thereafter asked for money to watch them make injera.
From the village, you climb a rustic staircase under the intermittent shade of eucalyptus and juniper to get to the entrance, which is now closed off by an ungainly block wall, constructed in the 80s to beef up security. But a single step through the door of that wall takes you to another world.
Asking yourself, "Didn't you say it was built on lake?" I'm sure you are. And here, as in other places in Ethiopia, you have to take the poetic license of ancient legends into account. Even without the benefit of shared language, a priest ventured to show us the proof: He lifted up a corner of one of the reed mats covering the ground to reveal a small hatch, beneath which there was a patch of watery mud. Or, erm ... a lake.
The buildings inside the cave, both the church itself and the adjacent priests' dwelling, are some of the finest remaining examples of Axumite architecture. The style is characteristic of Ethiopia's Axumite empire, which reached its apex of glory in the 12th century, and is recognizable by the layering of timber and gypsum plaster-covered stone. You can see the style being imitated in some of the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, but this is the real deal.
The wood of Yemrehanna Kristos is said to have been brought from Egypt and the stone from the Holy Land. But those aren't the only things that made a long journey to this obscure spot. Thousands upon thousands of pilgrims have made the trek over the centuries, hoping for bodily healing (perhaps with the aid of the holy water of the lake under the church) or, in many desperate cases, spiritual salvation before departing the physical world.
As you circumnavigate the church, around the back side, in the almost complete darkness of the cave, you'll find the resting place of more than 10,000 people who came to the church for this final blessing, to be bathed in holiness before meeting their maker. Eerie? You bet. But also moving, when you consider the very real struggle it would have been to reach this place even a few decades ago—and these people made the journey while they were deathly ill.
Emerging back into the light, we listened to the chanting of the monastery's resident priests, novice and aged, as they worked their way through their holy books. It was the continuation of a theme of the trip; everywhere we went, from urban Addis Ababa to Muslim-majority Harar, a soundtrack of chants and drumming — always live — was constantly rolling.
Each Ethiopian church we visited was overseen by a head priest, and the young man filling this post at Yemrehanna Kristos was exceptionally welcoming and eager to show us the sanctuary's interior. We wandered into it in, stepping carefully and straining to see in the meager light that came in through the door. The priest, seeing us squinting, joined us and asked, "Torch?" Cory fished out his ever-present tactical flashlight and handed it over.
The priest then led us around, shining a beam on the unusual — and unusually well-preserved — coffered ceiling and other decorative marvels of carving and polychromed wood.
The magic of Yemrehanna Kristos is that it is both a piece of history and a living, thriving holy site. The priest who gave us our impromptu tour was a member of a centuries old fraternity, but his youthful smile and demeanor, and the generosity with which he welcomed us, felt so utterly contemporary. Ultimately, this is a place where you, as a modern day pilgrim, can inhabit history, not just see it.