Seasoned travellers come back from Lalibela saying it’s the most extraordinary place they have ever seen. It’s certainly the highlight of Ethiopia’s northern circuit – the round trip of best places to visit that starts with Lake Tana, continues north to Gondar, then on to Aksum and the province of Tigrai. Tigrai has many churches hewn into rock faces, especially in the Gheralta mountain range, but Lalibela is unique in that its churches are hewn out of rock below ground level. Early Christianity, dating as far back as the 1st C AD, is still very much alive – the Orthodox religion practised here is much closer to the original religion of Jesus than the Western European versions.
Visiting Ethiopia without seeing Lalibela is like going to Egypt and not seeing the pyramids. The town itself is amazing enough, at 2,630 m in a glorious setting with views to wonderfully rugged peaks and sheer escarpments. The design of the houses is unique in Ethiopia – circular two-story stone dwellings that cling hugger mugger to the slopes on which the town stands.
But the centrepiece is of course the group of 13 medieval rock-hewn churches and chapels dating back to the 12th century, often described as an unofficial eighth wonder of the world. The churches are big – some as high as 10 m – and they really are cut, unbelievably, into rock below ground level, ringed by trenches and by courtyards. The courtyard sides have graves and hermit cells cut into them and are connected by a maze of tunnels and passages. The motivation and devotion of the people who hollowed them out will tax your imagination.
Each individual church is a unique design – precisely carved and decorated in detail. To appreciate it as it should be, get up early, at first light, when the hermits are crawling out of their cells and sitting on the rocks to get warm in the first rays of sun. The air will be full of drumbeats and chants. You then realize that the unique charm of Lalibela is that it is a living place – where the same rituals have been repeated every morning for at least eight centuries.
Cathy Gayner, an adventurous traveller, has kindly allowed us to feature this extract from her Lalibela journal:
‘St George (the cruciform church) is noble and humbling – and very beautiful. The feat of engineering is bewildering, the power of it belittling.
A series of ceremonial passages connect the eleven churches and they tend to merge into one – but the smallest of them all stand out. There are no tourists here to detract from the sanctity. It is dark and the smell of incense is almost claustrophobic. It is crowded with white-robed, white-turbaned priests chanting, their hand held bells swung in unison. Every conceivable corner is filled with white figures, tiny old crones, so wrapped up that only their faces show. No one pays any attention to us. We have stepped back into the Old Testament.
‘Between the churches, the sun shines on us brightly, then we plunge back into another passage and more darkness: a surreal underground world. Looking down on that great cruciform it is hard to tear oneself away – it has a powerful emotional pull.
‘Lunch is in Ben Abeba, an extraordinary hill-top restaurant (or is it a rundown funfair?) built and owned by a Scottish woman providing unlikely Western food set in an incongruous English garden.’
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