Somewhere in the mountains, north of the capital Addis Ababa, is a very special town called Lalibela. As a traveller to Ethiopia, you’re probably going to put this town on your itinerary. Why? Because it has 11 of the most amazing churches you are likely to see, built/created/carved in the late 12th and 13th centuries.
These churches are actually carved into rock, which is what makes them so amazing. So don’t expect that they look like traditional churches – although the comparison is not completely wrong – rather you’ll see a unique and special mode of construction that can’t fail to impress. I mean, we are talking 800 plus year ago. So the feat of carving into rocks, hollowing them out to make a church is a fair effort indeed. Today the churches, which you find in and around the hills of Lalibela, are Unesco World Heritage sites.
Perhaps the most famous of the churches is the Church of St George (Bet Giyorgis). And from above you see it is clearly shaped as a cross. This one has been carved straight downwards to start with, then in and around it. Where there are two groups of churches (the Northern and the Eastern Groups) Bet Giyorgis is separate and basically forms its own group. You take a thin path downwards carved out of rock around to the church, which is not built into the rock face, but downwards into the rock and you can actually walk around the whole thing.
Biete Medhane Alem – Church of Our Saviour of the World in English – is where my tour (this is many years ago now) started and is one of the largest churches. This felt the largest on the inside, and is home to the Cross of Lalibela. It’s under a protective roof these days, and is full of many carpets and ornaments.
The churches still function today, and the priests spend a lot of time inside the churches. This means their eyes get adjusted to the extremely low light inside the churches. They are happy to pose usually for a small donation for tourists’ photos, but they have to put on sunglasses to protect their eyes from any flashes. Actually, I’m not sure, given the nature of the churches, that flash-photography is a good idea!
Biete Gabriel-Rufael starts you on a bit of an adventure, crossing a bridge into the church, and then you follow a path and go up and around to see other churches in this sector. I remember crawling through tunnels, going up ladders and seeing some of the other churches including Biete Leham, which seemed to have decayed a bit more than the others and was also under a constructed roof.
The paths and tunnels eventually led to Biete Abba Libanos – still connected to the rock at the top over all these years. It’s a chance to explore and wonder, and it is really awe-inspiring stuff. And it’s really not that well known, people always are amazed when I say I’ve been to Ethiopia, mostly because they didn’t know there was anything to see in Ethiopia – which is so very very far from the truth let me tell you!
To see the churches we had a guide for two days, and to see them all and learn a bit you really need that. Be sensitive and respect the locals of course, and be aware there are fleas in the churches!
The town of Lalibela itself is actually pretty pleasant, and thanks to the altitude, it’s cool year-round. Not likely to see many clouds or much rain either, the skies were pretty clear for the four days I was there.
The food was pretty good too, just be aware it’s a matter of eating local food or nothing much. Luckily Ethiopian food is delicious and cheap. Injera is a special bread eaten throughout Ethiopia, fluffy and sour, you roll it up and dip it in the sauces with meat and vegetables. Some of the stews are tasty as well, but some of the food is piping hot – as in very spicy!
Getting there and away, I was with two others and we flew in and out. You can make it by road but the buses can take up to a day and a half to Addis Ababa, or less than an hour on a plane – maybe slightly longer with a stop in Bahir Dar. The mountains are breathtaking throughout Northern Ethiopia, including around Lalibela.
I stayed in the Lalibela Hotel, which I remember being pretty cheap – sharing a room and we spent around $10 a night or less. In 2009 that is! I’ve checked their website and they’ve renovated in 2012 and added things like wifi, but still around $25 for a single only.
This is truly an amazing highlight in this part of the world, and I can’t recommend Lalibela enough! Thanks for reading – May the Journey Never End!