Scattering a small handful of fine, red-tinged dust into my open palms, the priest explained to me that this was no ordinary soil – it was the holy earth that surrounded the tomb of King Lalibela – and it would bring me luck.
With that, he picked up the large, carved bronze crucifix leaning against the wall next to him, turned and disappeared off into the shadows of the dimly lit chapel, his thick colourful robes flowing out behind him like a royal gown.
Luck was something I felt I might soon be in need of. I was about to set out on a multi-day hike across the high plateaus and mountains of northern Ethiopia; a region that, until just a few months earlier, had been embroiled in a voracious civil war.
I have been a very frequent visitor to Ethiopia for over 30 years, and have written a number of guidebooks on this East African country. This attachment to the country meant that I’d watched in horror when, in late 2020, Ethiopia slid into chaos and war.
But then, quite suddenly, after two years of violence, a peace agreement was signed and the guns fell silent. Almost as soon as the ink on the peace deal had dried, I started to plan my return.
If any soil could be thought to bring good luck, it has to be the soil surrounding the tomb of King Lalibela. Ruling over a huge swathe of northern Ethiopia in the early 13th century, King Lalibela (regnal name Gebre Meskel) was one of the most important kings in a long line of Ethiopian rulers that stretches back about three thousand years to a fateful union between the Biblical King Solomon of Jerusalem and the legendary Queen of Sheba, whose capital is thought to have been in northern Ethiopia.
Court life in medieval Ethiopia was full of plot and intrigue, and King Lalibela’s period on the throne was no exception.
One night, as the legend goes, Lalibela’s jealous brother conspired to poison the king and take the throne. As the king flitted between the living and the dead, his soul was taken on a journey to heaven where God commanded him to return to the land of the living and, with the help of a team of angels, to build a series of rock hewn churches that would become a “New Jerusalem”.
Soon after Lalibela had made a miraculous recovery, he set to work to create the "New Jerusalem" that God had described. The result was eleven large monolithic churches hewn and cut down into solid rock and linked together by a network of gloomy tunnels and passages. Named after the king who dreamt them up, the Lalibela churches are now a major pilgrimage site for Ethiopia’s large Orthodox Christian population, as well as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Three days after the priest sprinkled holy soil into my hand I was sitting with my feet dangling over the side of a steep escarpment wall, watching the rising sun paint the clouds in soft pinks and oranges. Far below me a patchwork of small parched fields lay fallow waiting for the thunderstorms that would soon announce the arrival of the life-giving rainy season.
Behind me, the richly scented smell of roasting coffee beans seeped out from the dark interior of the thatched hut and, moments later, a lady’s voice called out to tell me that my breakfast was ready.
After leaving the churches of Lalibela I laced up my hiking boots and set out into the mountains that rise dramatically around Lalibela. Led by a local walking guide, and with mules carrying most of our gear, the trail we were walking is set-up to allow remote communities to benefit from small-scale hiking tourism.
Each night of our tour, we were hosted by a different village, and each lunchtime, we were served a delicious meal by another community. All of the villages involved in the project have set up a co-operative to build and maintain the simple tourism facilities, and 55 per cent of the money I paid for the trek was given to the hosting communities to be spent on development projects of the co-operative's choosing.
Despite the high altitudes, the hiking itself was surprisingly easy, and for much of the time my guide and I strolled happily along the very lip of the huge north Ethiopian plateau – a vast table land that undulates between 3,000m and 4,000m above sea level.
There were plentiful trees to provide shade and small villages to rest in. All the while, the view, which looked straight down off the plateau to the heat-stained lowlands below, gave the impression of being on the summit of a mighty, sheer sided mountain. It‘s a trail that gave the rewards of high mountain views, with none of the sweat involved in getting up there.
Sitting down to a spicy scrambled egg breakfast with thick, crusty bread and a cup of strong Ethiopian coffee – the country is the original home of the coffee plant – I asked my hosts what life had been like during the recent war.
“It was hard,” said one young woman who had a mint-coloured shawl wrapped tightly around her shoulders. “It was too dangerous to plant any crops in the fields and much of our livestock was killed. The markets were closed or empty and what was for sale became unaffordable. There were no tourists either so nobody had any way of making money. People went hungry."
The handful of other villagers listening in to our conversation nodded in agreement before the lady continued.
“Now though the war has stopped. This year we can harvest our fields again and you are the first tourist to stay here with us since before Covid and the war. More tourists might come now. It’s a new start,” she said with a smile creeping over her face.
Ethiopia might be looking forward to a new start, but, as I set out after breakfast on the last day of my trek, I considered how fresh the peace deal still was and how Ethiopia was also going to need luck on its side if it is truly to have a new start.
With this in mind, I stopped walking and pulled a small paper envelope out of my backpack. Opening it gently, I tipped the contents out over the edge of the escarpment and watched as a fresh breeze carried the dustlike soil from the tomb of King Lalibela down to the waiting fields far below.
The luck-bringing holy soil was where it belonged.