Lalibela will most probably instill both a real fascination (especially if you are discovering Ethiopia’s Jerusalem for the first time) and a certain disappointment (especially if you are returning there after a few years)…
Fascination, because the Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela probably belong to some of the most magnificent and breathtaking religious monuments you will see in your lifetime, and definitely the most unexpected ones. Fascination also, if you have the privilege to discover Lalibela over (Orthodox) Easter, when pilgrim congregate in Lalibela for a 3 day fasting marathon… A moment of rare devotion and spirituality!
Disappointment, as Lalibela is (deservedly) a very popular place, and a very compact one at that. No, you will not be the only foreign visitor there! Back in April 2010, Lalibela was already touristy (especially since we were visiting over Orthodox Easter). In November 2015, escaping the masses of tour groups seemed a real challenge, especially since everyone converges to the same places at the same time (opening hours are quite restrictive). So plan enough time in Lalibela to be able to choose the few more quiet times to discover quietly those magnificent Rock-Hewn Churches, away from those loud and mostly huge Tour Groups.
- The Rock-Hewn Churches Of Lalibela
Definitely the highlight of a trip to Ethiopia, and one of the highlights of all my trips, the Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela cannot leave one untouched… For me this was an unforgettable image: standing in this huge ditch in front of an ancient church…
Legend says that King Lalibela returned from Jerusalem with the order to build a second Jerusalem. And so he did! Churches, as high as three-story-buildings, were hewn deep into the reddish colored rock, connected by short tunnels. Little cave-like chapels were carved into the walls. Is there a better place to worship?
How long did it all take him? Exactly 23 years! Not a day more or less… Not bad for the 12th Century! But please note: the worldly laborers were supported by the angels to speed up this work. Upon looking at this out-worldly architecture, even the most skeptical person may come to think: sure, why not?
- Easter Celebration in Lalibela
Our dream image of Lalibela on Easter Sunday? Swaying among white-clad worshippers and chanting priests… Reality hit hard!
Worshippers, having fasted for three days, covered every inch of the churches’ floor, sleeping off their hunger and thirst. Wrapped into their large white shawls they looked like corpses. So Sunday evening there was no way to get in. The churches may look huge from the outside, the inside is very compartmentalized and some parts are strictly reserved for priests.
The chanting priests did not let us down, though. Inside and outside the churches, they preached in Ge’ez. This ancient language, long extinct, is now only used by the Coptic-orthodox clergy. Other priests immediately translated into Tigrean, for whom we wondered… Most worshippers were asleep and the tourists certainly could not follow the bilingual mess.
For us this was an unforgettable image: standing in this huge ditch in front of an ancient church in the middle of the night, with flickering candles as only light, listening to the monotonous praying. Even though most people were asleep, the devotion was comprehensible by the sheer masses. That some not so tired youngsters were quietly playing modern music on their mobiles gave it the perfect humane touch.
- Lalibela’s Weekly Market
Lalibela’s Saturday market offered a nice break from churches spotting. Cramped with stalls selling vegetables, fruits and clothes – it was huge! Nearly everyone was selling red onions, some merchants only a handful, some seating next to a small hill, some skillfully stacking them, others just spilling them on the ground.
The cattle market was cordoned off by a wooden fence, its only entrance controlled by an armed guard. His job was to check the receipt whether the farmers had paid the half Birr (3 USD Cents) to enter with their cattle. Quite a few tried to get in with out having paid the fee. The ensuing screaming, arguing and shoving looked scary to us, but the guard never lost his nerve and the gun firmly stayed on his shoulder…
- Crossing The River Jordan For Genata Maryam
Traveling to Genata Maryam took us through stunning landscape. Crossing the oasis-like River Jordan was only one of the highlights! Together with a German family, we rented a taxi to this rock-hewn church an hour’s drive outside Lalibela.
Genata Maryam is famous for its 12th Century old paintings. But after looking at so many churches, what we most enjoyed was being the only tourists in this place and chatting with relaxed priests and locals living on a nearby hill.
One of the clerics was especially cool looking. His fake Ray Ban sunglasses were in sharp contrast with his priestly robe. An elderly woman succeeded in begging off some Birr from us, by insisting she need clothes for going to church. Later, when we passed her tiny stone hut, we witnessed a funny, but also moving scene. Sitting on a dirty mattress, she was counting a bundle of equally dirty Birr notes. Hopefully, it soon will be enough for the new church outfit or whatever!
Driving back in the rain, we picked up several priests, and two other tourists. We felt much better with the minibus used to its real capacity, not just a few “Farenjis” in a huge vehicle…