Coptic Mystery: The Mute Priest of Lalibela

The traveller arrives in Lalibela and there learns an impromptu lesson: founts of knowledge exist in the most unlikely corners. Here in the holy city Ethiopia’s history is laid bare; its 11 rock-hewn churches, carved from the very living rock, pay testament to aeons of antiquity. A revolving cast – the begging youngsters, the curious shepherds, the officious guards – play out their lives in a constant loop, guarding and feeding the enormous link to eras far removed. Before the traveller’s gaze the 11 megalithic sites transform into another world.

‘Come and sit with me, visitor,’ the Coptic priest intimates. His invitation is a wise one: the midday heat in Lalibela is as intense as any African hilly outpost. Below him lies St George: the cuboid church, engulfed in moss and swallowed by the red earth, throbs gently under a thin veneer of heat waves. But still the traveller does not know what to say. Instead they let their host lead the discussion. He chants and he reads and he shares stories of religious isolation. As the sun moves so does the shade, and thus his protection, but he remains steadfast in his lesson.

‘The Copts cannot pinpoint when Christianity emerged in Ethiopia,’ he shares. ‘Nobody can. But still we believe in Tewahedo. We are divine and we are human.’

The priest falls silent and the traveller emerges from the tree’s shade. It’s only later they realise the man’s mouth had moved not once during the entire exchange.

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