Back in Atlanta 2011 when my favorite Borders Bookstore in Lenox Square was going out of business, all travel guides were 75% off. There was one travel guide left on the Sale shelf to a country I had not yet visited, Bradt’s Ethiopia. So I bought it. As a long time collector of travel guides, it was just one more to add to my bookshelf full of Lonely Planet guides, Let’s Go, Rick Steves, Moon Guides, etc. dating all the way back to Europe on $15 a Day. My travel guides were one of the toughest things I had to liquidate when I sold my home and went full time in the Winnie.
Leafing through that Ethiopia guide, reading about the eleven rock-hewn churches, I was struck with fascination over how they chiseled down into rock to a depth of up a 2 to 3 story building, then hollowed out the inside. They built each church from the top down, and then from bottom up. Nowhere else in the world has construction been done from the top down. It was a marvel! I knew that I wanted to see them one day, ergo my main reason for wanting to visit Ethiopia.
Like all Ethiopian history, the story of Lalibela is laced with legends, fantasy, and folklore. As the story goes, King Lalibela, emperor of Ethiopia during the late 12th and early 13th Centuries, built these eleven churches (thirteen if you count the two “twin” churches with side by side altars.) 900 years ago. Legend has it they were built in only a year by men during the day, with the help of angels at night. Historians say it likely took around 23 years (where they came up with that number, I have no idea.) Other theories credit the Knights Templar, the Christian crusaders, with having built them. Fact is, no one really knows when they were built, or why.
The most logical explanation is that Ethiopian Christians had long engaged in pilgrimages across the Red Sea to the Holy Land. After all, even their Queen of Sheba had traveled there to meet King Solomon. However, following the capture of Jerusalem in 1187 by the Muslim leader Saladin, it was considered too dangerous for Christians to make this pilgrimage. So King Lalibela ordered his own “New Jerusalem” to be built right here in Lovely Lalibela. He even built a rock-cut river and named it the “River Jordan.”
Lalibela is located in the Ethiopian central highlands at an elevation of 8,200 ft. As towns in Ethiopia go, it is one of the loveliest. We would be staying at the Panaorama Hotel, offering views from our balcony out over the mountains and valley below for three nights, a real luxury after our fast moving tour through the Danakil.
Lalibela is considered one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities, second only to Axum, “location of the Ark of the Covenant.” Unlike Axum which has a mix of religions, the population of Lalibela is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. It served as the capital of Ethiopia in the 12th and 13th centuries before the capital was relocated to Addis Ababa.
We would have a full day tour with a guide to explore the two church complexes, as they are divided into two clusters, north and south. During this tour, we would visit all eleven of the churches, which are comprised of three types; the monolith, which is free standing on all four sides, the semi-monolith, which is still attached by one wall to the cliff-side, and the cave churches. While all eleven of Lalibela’s churches are classified as “monolithic” (cut from a single stone,) our guide tells us that only six are actually free standing on all four sides, with four being semi-monolithic, and one being considered a cave church.
We would explore the northern cluster first, which contained both what is believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world standing at 33 feet, complete with it’s own courtyard, Bete Medhane Alem, (House of the Savior of the World,) Bete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael) believed to contain the tomb of King Lalibela, and Bete Maryam (Church of Virgin Mary,) the first church believed to be excavated.
Many of the churches are connected by a series of tunnels and trenches cut into the rock. Our guide asks about claustrophobia, as we will need to walk through one tunnel with one hand on the wall to find our way, and the other hand on the ceiling to avoid hitting our heads. At one point, it is so dark that I depend on the voices of my travel mates to know if I am falling behind.
The southern cluster contains five churches, however they are not as consistent in design as the northern cluster churches. Rather than the arched ceilings with cross-shaped windows, they have flat ceilings, leading some historians to believe they were not originally churches, but rather palaces or royal residences, possibly even pre-dating King Lalibela.
But the one church I had most wanted to see, the most iconic image of the Lalibela church complex and possibly Ethiopia itself, and the image I had seen in that Bradt Guide to Ethiopia some nine years ago that inspired me to visit, Bete Ghiorgis (House of St. George,) stands alone in isolation. Forming a triangle with the north and south complex, it stands about 1,000 ft away, connected by a series of drainage ditches and passageways. However, the best way to approach the House of St George is from the hill above, so one can get a complete overview from the surrounding area to see how the structure was built in the form of a cross.
The church complex of Lalibela was just as impressive as I had anticipated. As I have said in the past, I am not a religious person, but I am inspired and amazed at those who go to such great lengths to demonstrate their faith.