Lalibela is probably the most well-known Ethiopian place outside of Addis Ababa, and along with Bahir Dar, it’s also one of the most visited places by tourists who are game enough to come to this country. Strangely enough, the fellow tourists I spotted in Lalibela were mainly couples in what I would guess to be their late fifties to early sixties. Almost all were from somewhere in Europe – a lot of French, Italians and Germans. A lot of religious people also come here for the churches. Also, because it was Ethiopia Christmas, I spotted a few trendy housewives who were fooling themselves that they were hot-shot photographers. There aren’t really many nice hotels in Ethiopia and Lalibela isn’t an exception. Certainly nothing would be classified as any where near luxury. So as I watched these housewives with bleached blonde, perfectly coiffed hair, immaculate manicures and pedicures and designer clothes, I couldn’t help but laugh inwardly as I pictured them showering over an old yellow jerry can (used here for oil), using an old tin tomato can to pour water over their perfect hair to shampoo it, and climbing into bug infested sheets at the end of a long and dusty day….Haha, gosh I’m evil sometimes.
Lalibela is home to about a dozen rock hewn churches…13 to be exact, I think. All centuries old, all hand made, and like the pyramids at Giza, all perfectly geometric. All of the churches are also monolithic, which means instead of blocks of rock being stacked or fashioned together somehow, like the Pyramids at Giza, they are carved from one piece of rock or stone. I saw no mosques while I was in Lalibela. Unlike Harar in the East, supposedly almost everyone there is Ethiopian Orthodox; it’s considered to the the second most holy place in all of Ethiopia. (Axum is first). The exact ages of the churches are unknown, but the general consensus is that they were crafted during the 12th and 13th Centuries, with some people arguing that this extended into the 14th Century, even.
Actually, on a side note, I was talking to my driver the other day who was telling me that a lot of Ethiopia’s history is lost. A lot of the younger generation know almost nothing about the history of their own country and this is largely put down to a lack of history books, all of which have been stolen over the years by mainly the Italians (during their two invasions or attempts to colonise Ethiopia) and also the British and Americans. There is also surprisingly little information on the internet. It’s incredibly sad that a very rich cultural history spanning centuries and centuries has virtually been wiped out in little over a hundred years.
Back to the churches: their age guestimate is based on the assumption that the churches were made under the order of King Lalibela. “Lalibela” literally means “honey eater”. Honey = lali and to eat = bela. Supposedly the King was swarmed by bees and he “died.” While dead, he saw God, who instructed him to build these churches. When he came alive again, he had pictures in his mind of what he wanted and these are supposedly what we see today. King Lalibela only reigned for a few decades (1181-1221), so building, or rather chipping away of the rock would have begun while he was in power and continued long after the end of his reign. Actually it’s really interesting, because the churches are built – sorry, dug – into the ground. So the churches are the remaining bits of rock that haven’t been chipped out and taken away. But no one knows where the rock that used to surround the churches as one hunk has ended up. King Lalibela’s tomb is said to be in one of the churches at Lalibela – I think the guide said the Bete Golgotha Church, which is among the Northern cluster of churches.
The most well-known and my personal favourite church is Beta Giyorgis, which means St George. St George is the Patron Saint of Ethiopia and is also the name of a popular brand of local beer. It is supposedly in the best condition of all of the churches and it is also said to be the most perfect. Because it is set into the ground, you have to walk down a trench also carved from the stone, under an archway and through a tunnel to get to the church. There is a largish area where you can walk around the outside of the church, and there are a set of steps which lead up to the entrance. You must remove your shoes first. Inside, there was a Priest who was blessing people. We were there at Ethiopian Christmas; I am unsure if there is always a Priest here. You can exit either the way you came in or through another exit to the left which leads you onto a wide-ish ledge which wraps around the whole church. It’s too high to jump, so you must make your way around the church to the steps and go back down them the way you came up.
The other cool thing about these churches is that when they were built, a lot of complex hydro engineering was undertaken to provide water to all of the churches. Some have wells near them and Giyorgis has a water basin. I don’t know exactly how the water gets there, as Lalibela is at an elevation of 2000metres. The water is thought to be artesian water, coming from springs. But is is no coincidence that these wells fill with water, even at such an altitude. They are supposedly an amazing engineering feat, one which is overlooked simply because the churches are so awesome. In the Giyorigis water basin/well, papyrus grows. Papyrus symbolises rebirth, so infertile women are lowered into these wells/basins during ceremonies, to cure them.
I visited Lalibela in early January, for Ethiopia Christmas. During this time, thousands of pilgrims flock to Lalibela from all over the country, and tourists from all over the world come to witness this. It is believed that 20,000 to 50,000 pilgrims make the journey, some by foot. People walk from Bahir Dar, which I was told takes a month. Some people come from the North, via the mountains, a journey which takes about three days to a week. Most people come in on one of the many busses, but it seems like a lot of the older generation prefer to make the journey on foot. Over 350 Priests and over 250 Priests in training (deacons) also come. Everyone dons their traditional white cotton Ethiopian scarves and shawls, and so everything is a sea of white. It’s really quite incredible.
There is no transport in Lalibela, so unlike Bahir Dar and other towns in Ethiopia, you can’t jump in a bajaj for a quick trip to where you want to go. The road in Lalibela which winds up from the Bus Station to the main road at the top of the hill is paved, and while I was there, it was crowded with people and animals. Because it’s quite high up, and because the weather was extremely warm there in January, we were buggered by the time we reached the top of the town!
At the top of the hill, if you take a left and follow your nose to the end of the road, you’ll find a restaurant called Ben Ababa. It’s this totally sci-fi building which is at the end of the road and offers amazing 360 degree views of the surrounding mountain (Yoseph Abuna) and the valley below. It’s one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen. They serve ferangi as well as Habesha food, and it’s prepared in the kitchen down the bottom (which you can visit) by local people who are being given/have been given training about how to make and prepare foreign food, health food preparation practices such as washing vegetables in boiled or bottled water, etc. On most evening the two owners (a Scottish lady and an Ethiopian man) are there chatting to customers, and they always light up a couple of bonfires and hand out blankets to keep warm.