Archaeological Bucket List: The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela

Why Lalibela?

This was the major reason I was in Ethiopia. I usually find travel top 10, top 50 lists silly, but I still look at them anyway. When I encountered 50 Cities to See in Your Lifetime on the Huffington Post, I saw Lalibela listed at number 17. I had never heard of Lalibela or really even Ethiopia as a travel destination. People go to Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Egypt, and so on. Who goes to Ethiopia?

Them more and more I researched, the more I discovered that Ethiopia has possibly the most amazing historic sites on the African continent. I had to see the famous Rock Churches of Lalibela.

The Ethiopian Bus

After spending a couple of days in Addis Ababa getting adjusted to Ethiopia, I wound up in the domestic terminal of Bole Airport, a tiny little affair full of strange lounger-type seats, a mediocre restaurant and overpriced shops of awful items. Boarding domestic flights in Ethiopia is essentially like taking the bus, in fact while foreigners, probably neurotic about the usual security and check-in queues they encounter at home, usually showed up bright and early, locals seemed to have the right idea and would typically show up just in time to board. The Ethiopian domestic fleet consists of mostly smaller propeller planes and my flights were all basically on time. The flights are all basically less than an hour so a snack, usually some dry baked good and water, is offered during the flight.

Lalibela is not just the rock churches, as I was to learn. The arid, rocky landscape is simply stunning to land into. The beauty of the tiny airport is that after landing, you get to walk right to the airport and bags are hauled out on the cart, where you just pick yours up rather than waiting for a conveyer belt. It is efficient. The arrivals room consists of little tables for seemingly every single hotel in town waiting to pick up their passengers.

No-Frills with  a View

In Lalibela, I wanted to stay at the Maribela Hotel, which seemed to have the best reviews, but visiting a few days before Timket, the Ethiopian epiphany, their rates were through the roof. Between some of the other options, I just picked the least awful-looking place and ended up with Panoramic View, just next door to Maribela.

I was put into a shared shuttle by the hotel and we began the 30-45 minute ride into town. The distance is not far, but most of it is unpaved- I did see Chinese-manned projects underway to construct a full paved road between Lalibela and the airport, but until then, you will be breathing in some major dust clouds, but witnessing some spectacular valleys. I loved it.

What I guess I didn’t realize is that Lalibela is not a town or a city. It is essentially a village of dirt roads and small tin structures. The only proper buildings outside of the hotels seemed to be the Ethiopia bank.

Panoramic View sits on an edge road of town that hugs the cliff edge. This small road houses hotels including Mountain View and Maribela and a few others. Why did they all pick the same spot?  The hotels are narrow buildings that build their rooms so every guest has a balcony looking out to the valley below, and it is a stunning view that never got old for me. The hotel itself was very basic and suffering a power outage for most of the first day (which of course I do not really blame them for as it is common in  Ethiopia). I had a bed and a functional bathroom and that was all I came to expect.

Not So Much a Dining Scene

My first indication of how bad the food was at Panoramic View was ordering what was written as a club sandwich. I already learned western food in Ethiopia was not really worth trying, but suffering stomach illness earlier in the day, injera and stews were not happening. I was brought a stack of multiple layers of bread with contents that I could not figure out. Some sort of meat patty, a charred beef or pork of some sort, possibly a breaded chicken cutlet, and a couple of other mystery meats all put together and surrounded by a pile of pickled vegetables. If I didn’t have stomach illness already, this was guaranteed to do it. I made sure my other meals were out of the hotel. Speaking of that, I dined at:

Ben Abeba – this is a famous restaurant perched on a cliff edge with the most amazing views. The downside is it can get very cold and windy there, and your warm dish can quickly get refrigerated to the point of being unpleasant. I would probably do this one in the daytime.

Seven Olives – supposed to be the best hotel restaurant in town (Ben Abeba is probably the only non-hotel restaurant). No view, but nice garden seating and very tasty Ethiopian dishes, albeit a lot of bugs due to all the greenery.

img_3038
Savoring Shiro at the Seven Olives

Mountain View – the dining room is more elegant here and a little pricier. I was a little disappointed to find a fixed-priced menu for dinner, but I didn’t feel like wandering more with a power outage going on, so I took it. The food was ok, beef stroganoff pretty mediocre and I was amused the menu mentioned Friash Banana, which I thought would be some interesting dessert, but turned out to be fresh banana, on a plate. Meh.

Exploring the Archaeological Marvels

Lalibela’s rock churches are open for a few hours in the morning and after the priests take a lunch break, a few more hours in the afternoon.

I began with the Northern cluster of churches. Due to the state of emergency in the area from protests months ago, there were far fewer tourists at the churches than one would expect in the peak January month and anyone I talked to in the tourism business mentioned this. The upside of this for me was really getting to feel the atmosphere of the churches without crowds.

For the shock and awe factor, I recommend wrapping up with the Southern cluster of rock churches to finish off at the legendary Biete Giyorgis, the Church of Saint George, built by King Lalibela specifically to be a thing of incredible beauty. Plus, the southern cluster is a little more aesthetically interesting, even though every church has a unique story worth understanding.

The Northern Cluster 

The start of any tourist’s visit involves registering with the main ticket office by the Northern Cluster and paying $50USD for a ticket that covers three days to visit the churches. Before entering the churches, every foreign visitor is escorted through the one-room museum with a guide from the organization that maintains the churches.img_3152 I could barely understand a word of what my guide explained, but like other museums of religious articles in Ethiopia, it is a collection of items such as drums, crosses, goat-skin bibles and robes. The only part I did understand was being pressed for a tip by the guide who showed me around the room for five minutes.

 

The highlights of the northern cluster of churches are Biete Medhane Alem and Biete Maryam, two completely subterranean monolith rock churches. img_3151Medhane Alem houses the Lalibela cross, while Biete Maryam is modeled after the tombs of Adam and Christ. The other churches are semi-monolithic and blend more neatly into the rock.
One of the highlights of Biete Maryam is hearing about the slimy green pool where infertile women are lowered down by rope to be “cured”

If you end up in Lalibela, take a few moments to marvel and just how workers managed to carve through the rock with just hand chisels of different sizes (you can make out the marks all over the different structures). The one downside is the white “tent” that is used to cover Medhane Alem and Maryam.

The Southern Cluster

I decided to space out the Northern and Southern clusters, and if you have the time, I recommend it just to not end up with church overload. Possibly the most beautiful design of all of the churches is Biete Amanuel, which many people believe is a former royal church (also monolith). Also gorgeous is Biete Abba Libanos, which is unique because while technically monolith, the the rock above the church has not been excavated, giving it an almost cavern-like effect. Biete Gabriel-Rufael is believed to potentially be a former royal palace and it’s arches are an impressive sight overlooking the canal that runs throughout the entire church complex, modeled after the Jordan river. There are a few other churches in the Southern cluster, such as the former holy bakery, but none of them really left much of an impression.

img_3150The layout is the same in each of the churches, with one section dedicated to the holding of that church’s cross, hidden from public view and brought out during holy days. The interiors can not be described as ornate by any means and most of the original art is hard to identify, but if you look hard, you can see some frescos and carvings (Biete Maryam is particularly notable for it’s interior). At Gabriel-Rufael, the doorway is one of the finest examples present.

Biete Giyorgis, the Church of Saint George, built in the shape of a Lalibela cross. During the Ethiopian Christmas, the rim of the church is crowded with people in the traditional white cloth, and I imagine it is quite a sight to witness. However, when I visited, I relished a good chunk of time where this marvel was just being enjoyed by myself and a Nigerian visitor. After feeling overwhelmed by the mammoth structure, left untouched with the yellow discoloration beautifully splashed on the original rock, I descended down the almost hidden steps to visit the inside of the church. Like the other churches of Lalibela, the inner areas are quite small, save for a bit of interesting religious art.

Yemrehanna Kristos

I have heard stories of adventurous trekkers making the journey of several hours on foot from Lalibela to the Yemrehanna Kristos monastery outside of town. I am not quite so athletic, and the altitude and heat would have gotten to me if I had tried. Actually, I really suffered from the altitude in Lalibela, something that did not even hit me as hard in high-altitude spots in Peru or Colombia, but here, short walks would leave me breathing heavily and worn out. Maybe it is a combination of the altitude and dry climate around Lalibela.

To make this trip out of town, I worked with Memmekia from Lalibela Local tour. The journey each way takes about 90 minutes and is on some very rough, dusty roads. The views are simply spectacular, though, and even though dust clouds were circulating, I had to keep the window open to take it all in. I actually like Memmekia as a guide. He gave me enough information without being overbearing or giving a dissertation, and eventually, he was just easy to chat with about anything.

After a short walk up a steady path, we approached a cave. I did not do much reading beforehand, so I had no idea Yemrehanna Kristos was built right inside a the natural inside of a cave! Mats line the floor for pilgrims across the cave, which the focal point being the church itself, a Axumite-style structure very different from the churches of Lalibela, not being constructed from rock but layered materials. The priest here will happily bring out the cross for a quick look.

The church has a more grim history as a spot pilgrims would come when ill and looking for a last-minute miracle. Apparently 10,000 or so died this way, and their skeletons occupy a very large section of the cave in the back. Needless to say, I did not linger too much around the part.

I spread out my time in Lalibela to not rush through. Before visiting the church, I was not sure what to expect, but even with the time commitment of half a day to visit, I think it was worth it. How many churches can you really say you have seen inside a cave?

Roaming Around Town

Despite attracting it’s fair share of tourists because of the rock churches, a walk through Lalibela will attract a lot of attention for a foreign visitor (it is still a very small town). dsc_0132I took several walks around town and there really isn’t much of interest outside of the rock churches. The true beauty of Lalibela is the valley and the mountains that surround it. Every time I took a walk, someone would begin following me which was the most hassle I noticed in Ethiopia. Except for the really small kids who tried the dictionary scam on me (and disappeared as soon as I said no), the teenagers would try to chat me up, making various claims about their field of study, trying to learn English, and then segway into what they wanted from me. It was never overly aggressive, in fact, it became a little strange, especially when one guy told me he wanted t-shirts to hand out at his father’s birthday and that he would wait for me to check if I had any spare t-shirts for him. dsc_0203A few teenagers told me they wanted me to visit their professor’s house or go for a coffee ceremony. One teenager just seemed to follow me out of curiosity. One woman followed me with her baby all throughout town, hoping to get my sympathy.

Solo Traveler Comments:

Pros

  • There is a fair selection of reasonably-reviewed hotels that are pretty affordable for a single room (Maribela, Tukul, Mountain View, etc.), although they all seem pretty cookie-cutter
  • You can explore the rock churches independently if you wish, but information is non-existent. Guides can be hired for as inexpensively as $50 for a half day, possibly even less.
  • The rock churches are a world wonder! Need I say more?

Cons

  • A lot of hassling if walking around town. None of it is threatening but you are unlikely to be able to take a walk without a hanger-on, which can be annoying.
  • Not likely to be a place to connect with other travelers. Tons of tour groups and not really much of a nightlife or cafe scene in this sort of small town, especially since it is a touristy small town.
  • Shopping is extremely limited with non-existent selection and awful quality
  • Only one real restaurant outside of the hotels (Ben Abebe). A lot of mediocre cuisine.

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