Salambo in Addis

Salambo discovering Ethiopia

The famous churches of Lalibela

From the moment I heard about it, I had wanted to go to Lalibela to see the famous rock-hewn churches dating from the 13th century. Beyond being one of the most important historical sites in Ethiopia, classified by UNESCO as World Heritage, Lalibela is still a living city and one of the Christian Orthodox centres in the country. During religious festivals such as Epiphany (Timkat in Amharic) or Easter, pilgrims from all over the country gather there.

Bet Rafael and Bet Gabriel, two churches in one building

The story goes back to the 13th century when King Lalibela, the then ruler of Abyssinia, decided to create a new Jerusalem (supposedly after he had visited the Holy City). He had 11 churches, each dedicated to a different saint, carved into the rock.  The churches are divided into two groups separated by a narrow river, named Jordan, after the famous Jordan river in Palestine. They are all interconnected by amazing secret passages and tunnels. According to our guide, the churches were chiselled by hand in a period of only 20 years, with “the help of angels”.

Bet Gyorgis, the most impressive of all the monolithic churches

One of them, the most impressive of all, stands alone away from the other two groups. It is Bet Gyorgis, or the “House of George” (Saint George’s). According to the legend, when King Lalibela had finished building the two groups of churches, St George came to visit him to ask him why he hadn’t dedicated a church to him. In reply, Lalibela said that he would build the best one for him. Today, St George’s is still the best preserved of all the churches. It becomes the centre of a pilgrimage on St George’s day (25 January), and from what I was told, it is a very interesting time to visit it.

A 14th century painting inside a church: one of the apostles with the crown and on the right, Judas (without the crown as he betrayed Jesus)

Visitors in Lalibela are advised to take one of the official guides to tour the churches, and I must say it was very useful to do so. Without help, it is almost impossible to find all the secret ways and tunnels to go from one church to another, and we would miss out on the many explanations, particularly on the specific symbolism of each church. Also, by hiring a guide, visitors contribute to the livelihoods of local people. Lalibela is still a very poor city in a poor and arid region, located about 2,600 metres high in the middle of the dry high-plateaux and connected to the outer world by a single gravel road.  Until very recently, it was not possible to visit Lalibela during the rainy season in the summer. Today, there is a small airport about 25 kilometres from the town, which connects the region to Addis Ababa and other regional cities and enables visitors to go there all year around.

The landscape around Lalibela

Initially, I was a little frustrated to fly in and out of Lalibela without driving part of the journey to see more of the country. However, after I got there I realized that it would be a long and arduous drive (two days from Addis without many places to stop in-between). As we arrived, we went on the 40-minute drive uphill from the airport to the town across the arid landscape and through scattered hamlets. That was enough to give us an idea of how remote Lalibela is. Along the way, we saw many people walking towards town for the weekly market (it was a saturday) to sell the few produce they had. One women had walked two hours to sell no more than two chickens.

The 11th century Yimrhanne Kristos monastery built inside a cave

After two days in Lalibela, taking our time to visit the churches, we went on a short trip to visit the Yimrhanne Kristos monastery, about 50 kilometres outside town, or an hour and a half by car. The monastery, still a religious centre today, was built before the Lalibela churches, in the 11th century. It is not carved out, but built inside a cave, using layers of wood and marble covered with gypsum. Unlike European monasteries which are usually built on promontaries with beautiful views, this one is inside a dark cave, hidden behind high juniper trees. Without knowing about it, it would be impossible to see it from a distance. The whole place feels out of time. Ermits live there inside the cave, and pilgrims still visit regularly. The day we were there, a group of priests and pilgrims were praying and chanting just outside the church but still inside the cave. Further into it, we were shown an ossuary where the remains of 10,000 pilgrims over 1000 years were lying in the open. Quite an eery sight…

Life in this rural part of Ethiopia hasn’t changed in a thousand years, the small round houses, known as tukul, are the same as they ever were. The landscape however is stunning.  I could even use the overused word awesome in that case, as it is awesome. The horizon from the top of the mountain is limitless. To enjoy it even better, we ended up in Ben Ababa for the evening, a wacky bar and restaurant just opened. Out of this world, like the rest of Lalibela!

The new Ben Ababa bar and restaurant in Lalibela

One comment on “The famous churches of Lalibela

  1. Pingback: When King Lalibela went South - |

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