Lalibela's monolithic, medieval marvels - Ethiopia

January 20, 2017

Today marks one of the most scared days in the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian calendar, Timkat or Ethiopian Epiphany - the celebration of the baptism of Christ.  I thought it would be fitting to mark this day with my memories of a visit to a rather unique collection of Ethiopian churches.


Lalibela, does that not sound beautiful, lyrical? I love the name.  A short flight from the Ethiopian capital Addis Abba and you arrive in the mountainous northern part of the country.  Lalibela and its rock hewn churches are infamous, earning UNESCO world heritage status in 1978.  I would soon discover that there is far more beauty to Lalibela, than just its name. There are 11 medieval cave churches, split into two clusters separated by a river. King Lalibela started this ambitious project in the 12th century to recreate a “new Jerusalem.”  Carved out of single blocks of rock below ground level, yes single blocks, there are passage ways, windows, doors, drainage, and trenches – all of this built centuries ago before modern building equipment.  Details surrounding exactly how these wondrous places of worship were constructed remains a mystery, theories and legends abound, including one that says angels helped with the construction. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, so we split our visits to the churches across 2 days.


One of the first things that strikes me, is that these places of worship are living spaces, yes they are sites of pilgrimage, but yet so much more. People really use the property whether it’s to meet friends, chat, read or just hangout. I suppose my visits to places of workshop have always been to attend a service and then leave, so to me the lingering seems unusual but not so for Ethiopians, these scenes can be witnessed at churches across the country.  The beauty of the churches and the colour of the rocks, the detailed adornment, the artwork inside, the collections of crosses and ancient books – it’s tremendous!





My favourite of all the churches in Lalibela is Biet Giyorgis (House of St. George). When you first get to it, standing above looking down, it is just a perfectly put together building and a testament to the power of faith. Words will never do Biet Giyorgis justice; it’s a place to be experienced! In fact my partner and I liked it so much went back the next morning to see it in first light.



Lalibela sits some 2500 meters above sea leave, high above the mountains surrounding the town, is yet another surprise. The Asheton Maryam Monastery, perches between 3000 and 4000 meters above sea level, making it one of the highest churches in Ethiopia.  You can take a car for most part and then do a short hike or hire a donkey to carry you. We met our guide in the Lalibela town centre and climbed the entire way on foot. It’s certainly a trek worth doing; we are not exactly fitness freaks, high altitude can be tough and we struggled with our breathing even though we come from Johannesburg. But it gave us a fantastic way to see the area, passing homes, villages, crops and kids who always asked for pens. We even had a close encounter with Lammergeier, better known as the bone crusher a sort of ‘ancient’ vulture.  It’s a huge bird and can easily handle small bones. But the Lammergeier earned its bone crusher nickname, because it drops larger bones from height against rocks and then picks off the shattered pieces. Very clever!




Asheton Maryam has a hole in the wall entrance; a passageway leads to the church beyond the façade of rock. It’s a very simple church, within its walls there was calm, peacefulness and much needed shade from our trek.  It’s not often you get to an attraction and have the place to yourself, but here, we did and it was soul refreshing. 



The priest proudly showed off the ancient crosses, religious books and other artefacts.  




But our trek wasn’t over for the day. We would overnight at an eco-lodge sitting on a 10 hectare, plateau which is so high it feels like you could pull the clouds out the sky. Spectacular, views, warm hospitality, a foot rub, delicious food and a cosy bed – what more could you ask for after a day of mountain climbing.



Morning brought a hike down the mountain to the Axumite Yemrehanna Kristos church, unlike other places of workshop; this church is built rather than being hewn of rock. Yemrehanna is within a cave and built using stone and wood panels and sits above a marsh. It’s also a 100 years older than the Lalibela cluster of churches.  What was slightly disturbing for me, where the bodies of pilgrims, with various parts of their skeletons visible, buried at the back of the property.




Soon enough our Lalibela and surrounds church expedition was over. Pizza and an ice cold Ethiopian beer closed out our super amazing, fantastic and highly memorable stay.



All my travels are self funded.

My travel itinerary was customise designed by Boundless Ethiopia Tours, to cover the areas and activities of interest to me.  I highly recommend them if you are considering a visit to this wonderful country, they are friendly, professional and knowledgeable.  

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