Lalibela seems to be the end of the world. Probably is the best known spot all over Ethiopia, but once you reach that precious gem you got the feeling of being anyhow in the middle of nowhere. Probably that was exactly still Ethiopia, almost a decade ago, when I stepped the country for my first time. The end of the world, indeed.
Located in an awesome landscape background at 2,500 meters above sea level in the federated state of Amhara is the second holy city in the country, just after Aksum. It is an important pilgrimage centre of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church even having less than twenty thousand inhabitants.
Its fame came from their set of Rock-Hewn Churches, eleven medieval monolithic cave churches of this 13th-century declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978. Those Rock-Hewn Churches and the role of the town a pilgrimage centre is even more relevant during Enkutatash, the first day of the New Year in Ethiopia and Eritrea, that occurs there on Meskerem 1 on the Ethiopian calendar, which is 11 September according to our Gregorian calendar.
In old times Lalibela was the capital of the Zagüe dynasty. It received its current name from King Gebra Maskal Lalibela (1172-1212), canonized by the Ethiopian Church, who wanted to build a “new Jerusalem” in the town, striking back symbolically this way to the conquest of the Holy Land by the Muslims.
It was early September of 2012 and I have been backpacking almost a month along the country… the animist southern tribes, the eastern Muslim part near Somalia and to end up I wanted to see the Christian Orthodox, especially during Enkutatash, northern Ethiopia, that country that looked like to me actually split in three very different sides.
To arrive there, the best option is still to fly, even within the country. Since it’s a quite demanded destination in Ethiopia they have provided regular fights to there. Lately they have built some new roads, especially from Addis Ababa, but those improvements are irregular and too few, the distances are long and if you want to spare energy and time I recommend to use Ethiopian Airlines which is a cheap company, quite efficient and you could find one of their offices every big city.
What to bring with you?
- Torch. It’s very dark everywhere inside the churches and during the night there is lack of public illumination
- Small notes in cash. You might need to pay in cash and there is lack of ATMs
- Sport shoes and comfortable clothes
- Repelent for mosquitoes
- Basic first aid kit
I decided to catch a quite comfortable accommodation option according to my Lonely Planet. I chose Tukul Village Hotel and for a reasonable price (thinking in European standards) I got a very comfortable cabin with views to the churches. I could bargain the price at Ethiopian style since I had planned to stay almost a week there. Once on the street the real Ethiopia, with its sometimes funny face and its annoying tricks as part of its very sad truth too, was waiting for me. Smart kids were playing football in a closed field with a destroyed ball.
“Farang, farang!” they yeld to me. “Would you like to join us to play?” One of them asked me in correct English, that level is only available in Ethiopia where tourists arrive. I said yes and we started playing a bit till again another one of the kids came to me to point out how destroyed the ball was. “It’s not possible to play like this!” He complained and I understood immediately why they invited me to play. I said I was sorry and I left the football field smiling. I always say no to kids for responsibility, just not to encourage them to think that live out of the tourist is better solution than studying and hunting a job when grownups. The following day I could see how they delivered back to the store, laughing, the new ball that another very blond and naive backpacker have bought for them. Then, they happily took back their destroyed ball to play with again.
In Lalibela there are some restaurants. Food in Ethiopia is a challenge, especially in the very south or remote areas, because of the hygienical conditions and poverty overall. But Lalibela due to tourism is an exception. The visitor could reach some nice restaurants where pasta and pizza make a break among the everyday present wat (Ethiopian stew) and injera (a teff cereal dough served with every dish).
Restaurants in Lalibela, a shortlist of favourites:
- Selina restaurant is my favourite. Familiar restaurant with excellent food and attention. Simply the best in town to taste local flavours.
- Ben Abeba with its excellent views, nice food and good service. Its 360º views are spectacular. It’s a bit more expensive than the average but worth.
- Ma’ed Lalibela Restaurant is a place more into fun than food. Traditional dishes are fine but wine and a local spirit are nice surprises there. You can join to dance in the traditional dancing show.
- Unique restaurant is hard to find and it’s not very attractive from outside, but the food is excellent and owner’s kindness outstanding. It’s possible to go for cooking course for 20USD.
Even though, as you can imagine, nobody goes there to enjoy gastronomy but for the churches. I got around many times, back and forth, getting into churches and catching awesome elevate views over them. The entrance ticket is 50 USD in 2020 and is valid for 5 days. It’s very expensive according to Ethiopian prices but it’s worth thinking about what you will see. Not only the churches themselves which buildings are awesome landmarks but the ancestral performances of a lost but alive Christian ritual. Around them, people dress in white, men and women, they read sacred books and pray up loud every corner. The inner part is dark, humid and mystic, you are inside a rock where god disciples take seriously their role. They sing and pray and they are open enough to accept pictures and explain the ritual meanwhile they perform.
The most emblematic church is Bet Ghiorgis (House of St. George) with its Greek cross plant and fifteen meters high, entirely carved in the rock. This church is isolated from the others, but connected by a system of trenches. The other churches are spread all around the town and they have names that remind bible references and old Jerusalem spots.
Rock-Hewn Churches list with their location:
- Bet Ghiorgis (House of St. George)
- Bet Medhani Alem (House of the Saviour of the World)
- Bet Mariam (House of Mary)
- Bet Maskal (House of the Cross)
- Bet Denagel (House of Virgins)
- Bet Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael)
- Bet Amanuel (House of Emmanuel)
- Bet Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercoreos)
- Bet Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos)
- Bet Gabriel Raphael (House of Gabriel Raphael)
- Bet Lehem (House of Holy Bread).
- Near the churches are the 11th century Ashetan Maryam monastery and Yemrehana Krestos church, built in the axumite style, housed in a cave.
I was invited in a church to sit on a very tiny seat in the middle of some men who were singing, I felt in the middle of a sacred moment when one of them stopped praying and asked the entrance ticket from me breaking down the magic. But all there is natural and real, the religion is part of the life so they just interact with the ritual as we do in our lives with social media. One day I heart someone yelling and people started to run inside Bet Abba Libanos, the light that was getting into thought a narrow window illuminated three bodies fighting on the floor. A young man was screaming, rolling his eyes, while two others tried to keep him quiet and a third one came with a big cross to apply on him while recited some sentences again and again. Everybody started to pray very quick and loud, some women began to cry and I understood that I had seen, just in front of me, a real exorcism.
Enkutatash arrived and early morning people joinned, dressed in perfect white with new clothes to celebrate all around the temples. The sing, play traditional music and pray. To me, it’s the perfect moment to go to Lalibela. The mystic was there, but when turn to look around with my camera I saw two teenager girls getting some fun gossiping. The living proof that skipping formal rules when you are young is universal.
Best moment to go:
During Enkutatash, the first day of the New Year in Ethiopia, 11 September according to our Gregorian calendar and Meskerem 1 on the Ethiopian calendar. In this celebration, after attending church in the morning, families gather to share a traditional meal of injera and wat. Later in the day, young girls donning new clothes, gather daisies and present friends with a bouquet, singing New Year’s songs. You can see many people around and inside the temples dressed in traditional outfits.
Lalibela is dust, poverty, and a lot of donkeys shitting around. People ask often from you to sit in their place or to buy something, unfortunately like everywhere in the third world. Even though, you can see some cobblestone streets and I spotted a Library. I am a librarian, so I wanted to check immediately how the things were going with my job there. Outside the building, a sign showed that the library was built by a donation of the English queen. Not bad I though. I introduced myself to the librarian there in charge and he seemed happy to let me take a look inside while he was checking like a policeman the pockets of a teenager who wanted to go out. The conditions were limited, very old seats, tables and shelves and a terrible old and outdated collection of only English books what reminded me that is very nice to say that you helped to join some bricks to run a library and how easy is to forget those walls afterwards.
I was thinking about that when I caught up with, just outside the library, one of the boys who invited me to join for a football match. He was there reading or pretending. He smiled to me. “Farang, I know all the European capitals. Test me!” He said smiling. And it was true, he knew by heart even those ones of the smallest countries. I congratulated him but he wanted to play further with me. “But, unfortunately, I don’t know any of the Africans…” He said with a very sad face. “Why? How this could be?” I asked. “Because in my school book there is no African Geography, only European”. He answered and I started to blame our eurocentric way of doing, I really began to feel deeply guilty about my western colonialist origins… till he pointed out a small shop with some visible books at its gate. The boy smiled kindly to me and said “But there, in this shop, they sell very nice African Geography books”.