First published at Borkena Ethiopian news
On first impression Lalibela seems an unlikely place for the place Ethiopian’s call the Eighth Wonder of the world. The road from the airport snakes through a patchwork of yellow and brown fields crisscrossed by dry rivulets, sandwiched between the huge escarpments of the Lasta Mountains. This is the province of Wollo, 2500 metres above sea level and 650 kilometres north of Addis Ababa in the heart of the Ethiopian highlands. The existence of any settlement here seems like a miracle in itself in such a remote part of the world. People thresh straw by hand in the fields before the road finally turns to reveal the town: a series of houses clinging to the hillside, capped by tin roofs that sparkle in the intensity of the highland sun.
This biblical landscape is home of the famous complex of eleven monolithic churches carved directly from the rock, as well as a major pilgrimage site for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. Visiting here twenty years ago, my accommodation was not much more luxurious than a stable. Nowadays visitors are spoiled for choice of modern hotels catering to all tastes and standards of comfort. I check into a room with a big comfy double bed and a panoramic terrace view of the mountains to die for, before engaging a guide (essential), Asnak, to visit the church compound.
We entered the complex right in the centre of town, with herds of goats scuffling at our heels. After paying the $50 entrance fee, I remove my shoes (obligatory) and then hand them over to an ancient, crumpled looking man who has appointed himself as my shoe bearer for the afternoon. Lalibela is a UNESCO World Heritage Site but a place of religion foremost and so it is rightly expected for visitors to be respectful of Orthodox traditions.
The complex unfolds itself as a series of eleven churches, linked by tunnels, channels and alleyways, all carved directly from the rocky mountainside. Asnak leads me through, as I try to hold onto the rocky walls in the uneven channels. Pilgrims scurry through the passages, heads wrapped in white muslin shawls. Each passage twists and turns to finally reveal a church rising out of the rock. At the churches, people kneel in supplication or mutter prayers while kissing the walls and making the sign of the cross.
Asnak reminds me to give alms to the poor that reach out their hands but these are noticeably less in number than my last visit thanks to the rise of the country’s economy and the income that tourism brings.
The churches themselves have been fashioned by tunnelling vertically downwards to create square blocks of stone, hollowed out within to create the church itself. Inside, priests with serious expressions whisk back red velvet curtains to reveal glinting silver crosses and scripture books in the ancient language of Ge’ez used by the clergy. Ceremonial umbrellas threaded with gold are unfurled for my inspection and approval. Asnak illuminates the gloom with his torch, pointing out faces of angels and religious scenes painted hundreds of years ago.
Outside, the sunlight of the small courtyards is blinding after the inner gloom. Despite the preponderance of new hotels, there are still more pilgrims than tourists and the atmosphere is still fervently religious rather than being overwhelmed by tour groups and cameras.
We visit each church in turn, crossing back and forth over the waterway known as the River Jordan that trickles through the site. Asnak explains to me that the churches were built in the 13th Century under King Lalibela. So the legend goes that when Lalibela was born, he was surrounded by a swarm of bees and thus his mother gave him his name which means ‘the bees recognise his sovereignty.’
Lalibela, as king, wished to create a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia after Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem were halted by Muslim conquests. According to legend, the churches were completed in just 24 years although according to Asnak, one of the churches, the Beat Abb Libanos, was built within 24 hours by angels.
Lalibela’s most iconic church lies separate to the main group of churches. Beta Giorgis – the church of St George – is set in the earth, its roof carved from red volcanic tuff into a perfectly symmetrical cross and flush with the ground. The patch of land around is dotted with tukuls – tall cylindrical mud huts topped with thatched roofs. Beyond, there is a row of scrubby trees and then the hills fall away to the bowl of the valley before rising to the misty shape of an escarpment beyond.
We climb down a set of steep stairs to a narrow entrance tunnel pitted with holes (“the hoof prints of St George,’ said Asnak). A hole in the wall is filled with the rubble of the human bones of a saint. Outside we enter a shaft of sunlight and then up the uneven steps into the gloom of the church. Inside, it smelled of incense and dust, of something incredibly old.
Asnak points out a box, saying it contained the bones of King Lalibela himself. “Now you have seen everything,” he whispered. “You will enter the Kingdom of God.” In a place like Lalibela, it is easy to believe it.
Read about Ben Abeba, Lalibela’s restaurant in the sky