The world's perception of Ethiopia is so completely out of whack. Ingrained memories of the bloody civil war of the 1970s and the famine of the 1980s still linger. And while those traumas can't be diminished, the problem is that they mark the outline of Ethiopia on most people's mental maps — and the rest is left blank, leaving the country defined by miseries it has moved beyond. It takes going to the country, and all the attendant research that demands, to fill in the details. And in doing that, you'll find yourself saying, over and over, "This is incredible. This is amazing. Why does no one talk about this?"
Lalibela is the ultimate illustration of this gross injustice. This is a place whose history should be taught alongside that of Rome and Greece. It's a gobsmacking showcase of the country's history of Christianity — the religion was adopted in Ethiopia before anywhere else outside the Middle East, in the 4th century A.D.
In the 12th century, King Lalibela, taking into consideration the perils of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem — which had recently been captured by Saladin (1187) — built a second Jerusalem here. If you prefer to be more romantic about it, he obeyed the decree of a visiting angel to do so. Either way, King Lalibela (after whom the city is named) didn't take the usual approach to monument building, nor did he do things on a modest scale. Instead of just building one church, he built 11. Instead of constructing with bricks or wood, he had the churches carved from the bedrock — dug down deep enough to create multi-storey buildings, and not just hollowed out inside, but carved with columns, arches, windows and surface designs. And the churches are carefully placed on the landscape to mimic the layout of important sites in Jerusalem.
The site has always remained sacred to Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, who still make pilgrimages here and gather to celebrate major holidays, such as Fasika, Ethiopian Easter, and Meskel, the celebration of Saint Helena's discovery of the True Cross in the 4th century. Even on non-holidays, the churches hum with priestly chants and the prayers of worshippers.
While we were exploring the churches, we stumbled on something extraordinary. In a scene reminiscent of Beatlemania (though without all the shrieking), a crush of worshippers, many holding buckets, jugs and teapots of water, surged toward a priest who was holding up a golden cross.
As the priest worked to turn all that regular H2O to holy water, our guide explained the worshippers' sense of urgency. It was no ordinary cross in the hands of that priest — it was King Lalibela's cross, one of the holiest relics in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. Shockingly, it was stolen in the 1990s—a devastating blow to Ethiopia's millions of devout Christians. It was found among the belongings of a Belgian man who had paid $25,000 for it. Upon its discovery, the cross was repatriated to Ethiopia and sent back to the home from which it had been pilfered, Bet Medhane Alem ("Bet" is church in Amharic), where we were watching the scene unfold. It lasted only a few minutes before the priest retreated back into the church.
We continued our excursion to each of the churches — you're required to have a ticket (which is good for multiple days) and a guide—and yet, throughout the day, never saw another traveler. Just imagine being able to say that about the Aya Sofya or the Alhambra.
Going between the churches sometimes makes you feel like extras on the set of Indiana Jones.
These women were drying and sorting grain for holy bread.
Some painted decorations remain on the walls in certain churches, but they are largely left blank. In niches and around the altars, large posters and canvases are set up, depicting Biblical stories in Ethiopia's distinctive style of icon painting.
The churches of Lalibela are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and lucky for them that they've received that designation and protetion that goes along with it. Time and weather are conspiring to degrade the buildings, threatening their structural integrity. Some of the more delicate and exposed buildings have huge canopies stretched over them. The massive support framework for the canopies isn't exactly photogenic (see below), but I'm glad it's in place.
Outside of the churches, Lalibela itself is a pleasant place to kick back for a few days. We found quite a bit of good food (at Restaurant Unique in particular) and had great chats with a number of friendly people — including an impromptu African geography quiz administered by a clever young man who was probably all of 11, and there's enough infrastructure here to ensure some good hotel options (we stayed at the modest, spic-and-span Alef Paradise). Some of the ritzier options around town are modeled on the local vernacular house, the tukul.
Restaurant Unique was the first place where we were treated to an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. The owner's daughter asked if we wanted coffee, and we said we did, expecting it to be added to the tab for our lunch. After bringing out the necessary equipment, she began roasting the beans on a metal plate over a brazier, filling the air with that intoxicating scent. We sat back and ate at a leisurely pace, chatting about life, travel, and our respective countries with some other patrons, one of whom was eager to practice his English (which was flawless and really needed no improvement at all). The young woman, just a few steps from our table, ground the beans and added them, along with hot water, to the long necked vessel (jebena) in which the coffee is brewed. It was a long wait, sure, but the company was good, the light was golden and we had a plate full of food to nibble at. When the coffee was finally poured, it was complex, bright and smooth. I would almost say that it was worth the wait, but the wait was nothing to be bothered about — it was part of the experience. And after all that, the owner refused to charge us.
Lalibela is set in rugged mountains, and there are upper and lower parts of town. Most hotels are in the lower part, but shops, a number of restaurants and key points of traveler interest (the bank, the Ethiopian Airlines office, etc) are in the upper — the churches are set throughout the middle. That means a lot of long, calf-strengthening walks, but you'll always have lovely views.
it's the sort of place where you'll see someone walk up to a priest on the street, and he'll pull a cross out from his robes and bless them right there. A shepherd boy might follow you around for a while. You might stumble onto a heated foosball match being played on a battered old table on the side of the road. You might need to stop occasionally in the shade of a eucalyptus tree to escape the baking sun, but you will definitely — definitely — be met with some smiles and greetings as you stomp up and down the hills.
And, if you're lucky, you'll walk home from dinner one night and see the moon rising, in blinding brilliance, over the distant hills.