Lalibela

Lalibela is a rural town of 15,000 people in a stunning setting at an elevation of 2,600 m (8,500 ft) in the midst of the Lasta mountains in the eastern highlands of Northern Ethiopia. Its unique and remarkable monolithic churches hewn from living rock, most built more than 900 years ago, are one of Ethiopia's leading attractions and were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.

Understand

Bet Giyorgis – one of 11 rock-hewn churches in Lalibela

Lalibela is a great little town to visit. Its complex of churches chiselled from pink volcanic rock have been called the "eighth wonder of the world". In addition, the wonderful year-round climate and exhilarating mountain views, combined with some of the finest lodgings outside of the capital, are reason to spend a few days soaking up the fine vistas. Lalibela's relative isolation and small size means you will get to understand more intimately and thoroughly the innate piety and hard lives of the rural poor.

To the north of Lalibela, Dewosach, where much of the decorating and illumination of holy books was done in the time of King Lalibela, rises more than another 1,000 m (3,280 ft) above Lalibela to 3,670 m (12,040 ft) while the much nearer and slightly lower Asheten with its distinctive flat top lies to the east. Asheten means smell in Amharic and this mesa was named during the reign of King Lalibela's nephew, King Neakutoleab, who burned frankincense while building Saint Mary's church on its summit – visiting monks said they found it by following the smell.

This is not to say that everything in the garden is rosy. Like much of the world, women here bear an unfair workload. You may wince when you see little girls of five and six bent double and almost hidden from view by the immense load of firewood on their backs while their elder brothers play outside table tennis. Sanitation and public cleanliness is a bit haphazard so there are more flies here than in Tigray to the north.

To the south of the north-west complex of churches you can still see some older dwellings built in the style peculiar to Lalibela, neat round two storey dwellings built out of stone with conical, thatched roofs, but most other buildings are either wattle and daub structures or improvised buildings with corrugated roofs patched with thatch. There could hardly be more of a contrast with the ancient craftsmanship of the ecclesiastical buildings – which must surely be unique in all the world for having been built from the top down rather than from the ground up.

History

Since the town, first called Roha, was founded by the eponymous King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela of the Zagwe dynasty more than 900 years ago as the "new Jerusalem", the later-renamed Lalibela has been a major ecclesiastical centre of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a place of pilgrimage to its amazing concentration of rock-hewn churches. Pious Ethiopians often walk hundreds of kilometres in bare feet from all over Ethiopia to receive blessings.

Although all the church exteriors and interiors are carved from soft volcanic tufa, their architecture is extremely diverse: some stand as isolated monoliths in deep pits, while others have been cut into the face of a cliff. Establishing a sequence or chronology for a rock-hewn building is much more difficult than for a conventional one, especially when the churches in Lalibela are all in daily use for services. Consequently, there have been long running academic disputes as to both the time period and duration of construction.

The Ethiopian Orthodox tradition unequivocally recognises the huge task represented by the cutting of these churches and their associated trenches, passages and tunnels. It explains the completion of the excavation during the reign of a single saintly king by attributing much of the work to angels who, after the workmen had downed tools for the day, came in on a night shift and worked twice as fast as the human day shift had done. In this way, work proceeded so fast that all the churches are said to have been completed within King Lalibela’s quarter-century rule.

Some argue that the oldest of the rock-hewn features at Lalibela may date to the 7th or 8th centuries CE – about 500 years earlier than the traditional dating. These first monuments were not originally churches, although they were subsequently extended in a different architectural style and converted to ecclesiastical use. Later – perhaps around the 12th or 11th century – the finest and most sophisticated churches were added, carved as three- or five-aisled basilicas and retaining many architectural features derived from those of ancient Aksum, which had flourished some 400–800 years previously. It is the last phase of Lalibela’s development which may, Phillipson believes, be dated to the reign of King Lalibela. The complex of churches was extended and elaborated. Several of the features attributed to this last phase bear names like the Tomb of Adam or the Church of Golgotha, which mirror those of places visited by pilgrims to Jerusalem and its environs. This naming has extended to natural features: the seasonal river which flows though the site is known as Yordanos (Jordan) and a nearby hill is Debra Zeit (Mount of Olives). It seems that it was King Lalibela who gave the place its present complexity and form: a substitute for Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage. It may be significant that early in King Lalibela’s reign the Muslim Salah-ad-Din (Saladin) had captured Jerusalem, and for this reason Ethiopians may have felt excluded from making their traditional pilgrimage to the Holy Land across the Red Sea. Today, a cloth-draped feature in the Church of Golgotha is pointed out as the Tomb of King Lalibela.

Get in

By plane

Ethiopian Airlines has scheduled flights every day to Lalibela Airport (IATA: LLI). There are direct flights from Axum, Bahir Dar and Gondar (and indirect flights from Addis Ababa), and direct flights to Addis Ababa, Axum and Gondar (but not to Bahir Dar). Flights are often overbooked; make sure you reconfirm your seat at least one day in advance and show up at the airport on time. Flights can be rescheduled or cancelled at short notice because of weather or operational reasons. The airport is mid-sized, which seems over-sized for a small town like Lalibela. It's 27 km from town and at least 30 minutes by shared minibus (70 birr per person as of Dec 2013). The road is asphalted but was poorly constructed and parts are in poor condition.

By car

The roads to the small town of Gashena, south of Lalibela, are asphalted from Bahir Dar and Gondar to the west, and Woldia to the east. From there it is 1-2 hours over a road that is unsealed except for the last part from Lalibela Airport to the town. From Bahir Dar the drive takes about 7-8 hours and from Gondar about 10-11 hours. It is possible to get private drivers in both Bahir Dar and Gondar and would cost about 2,000-4,000 birr depending on negotiations, location and driver. There is also an unsealed road to Lalibela from the north, but even if coming from Axum and Adwa, it is quicker and easier to take the sealed road via Adigrat and Woldia.

By bus

There is a daily bus from Addis Ababa. It is a two-day journey with an overnight stop at Dessie. The bus passes through Woldia mid-morning and will pick up passengers from the bus station if it has room. Another bus runs daily from Woldia, leaving at dawn. Both the Woldia and Addis Ababa buses depart Lalibela at 06:00.

It is usually possible to get to/from Bahir Dar by bus in one day by changing buses at Gashena, about one or two bumpy hours from Lalibela depending on traffic and weather. If you are travelling to or from Gondar by bus, you will usually have to spend the night somewhere.

Coming from Axum the most plausible way would take about two nights with stopovers in Mekele and Woldia. However, if you are lucky you might be able to catch a shared taxi in Mekele which brings you along highway 1 to Woldia. The next day you can catch a bus heading towards Bahir Dar with a stop at the Gashena junction to Lalibela where you have to wait for another bus/car to bring you to Lalibela. This might take a few hours.

Get around

You may lose a few kilos walking up and down the streets (some cobbled, some dirt) since there are few conventional taxis and Lalibela is pleasantly free of buzzing bajaji engines. You can rent minibuses to drive you around town for about 25 birr per person (minimum 50 birr). Unlike bigger towns and cities in Ethiopia, no blue and white minibuses regularly run through Lalibela.

You can walk safely around town (and people will greet with many wanting to practice their English or offer their services or wares). School children may try to befriend you, and follow you around, perhaps beg. From 2010 onwards the government has tried to forbid begging, and the situation is now much better than before, but many people still beg after a long conversation or invite you to their homes where more successful begging can be done.

See

Map of Lalibela churches
Inside Bet Medhane Alem

This town is known around the world for its churches hewn from the top down into living rock, most of which were built during the reign of the eponymous Lalibela, king of Ethiopia, when he moved his capital here in the Zagwe period. Contrary to certain spurious myths, they were not built with the help of the Knights Templar; rather, they were produced solely by medieval Ethiopian civilization. However, there is controversy as to when the churches were constructed. Some scholars believe that the churches were built well before Lalibela and that Lalibela simply named them after himself. They were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.

It's a good idea to get up before dawn to be at the ticket office when it opens at 06:00. This way you will hear the deep bass rhythms of the church drums and the haunting chants of the priests and congregation at mass. There are also fewer flies and wanna-be guides pestering you. Ethiopian birds are colourful and more of them are about just after dawn. A great time to visit is on Sunday mornings, when hundreds of people descend on the churches for traditional Ethiopian Orthodox worship. If your alarm clock lets you down, don't fret – looking inside the churches is less intrusive after 10:00, and what you lose in birdlife is compensated by red, yellow and blue headed lizards scampering over the rough terrain.

The 11 churches are in three clusters, all within easy walking distance of each other:

The churches are open 06:00-12:00, and 14:00-17:00. Admission to all costs US$50 for adults, and USD25 for children aged 9-13 (ticket valid for 5 days). Entry is free for children under 9 and Ethiopians without a foreign passport. Licenced guides are available from the tourist office in Lalibela for 200 birr per day. These guides are well trained and have an excellent working knowledge of the churches and good relationships with the priests. Unlicensed guides will approach you all over the village, but they often know very little about the churches and are best avoided.

You need to take your shoes off before entering the churches. As there are numerous churches, you will do this a number of times. You may find it easier to wear slip-on footwear, such as flip-flops. The rock between churches in each cluster, although uneven, has been worn smooth over the centuries, so you might even take a plastic bag to pop your footwear into, and walk barefoot between the churches as many pilgrims do.

Farther afield lie the monasteries of Na’akuto La’ab (4 km south) and   Ashetan Maryam, and Yimrehane Kristos church (possibly 11th century, built in the Axumite fashion but within a cave).

Do

Learn

Buy

There is an ATM at Dashen Bank on the ground floor of the Aman Hotel close to the Ethiopian Airlines office, and another next door at the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia. The Dashen one permits up to 2000 birr in one transaction with multiple daily transactions possible up to your daily card limit. Only Visa is accepted. For other card holders the only option besides having an acquaintance send money via Western Union is to go to the Mountain View Hotel. They will charge MasterCard plus a 10% surcharge and give you birr.

Even in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian "supermarkets" are only glorified "sari sari" shops and the range of goods carried by even the tiniest village shop in the highlands of Scotland would put them to shame. The best stocked place in Lalibela is the "WOW Supermarket" on the west side of the steep Sebat Woyra Road about 200 m before it joins Adebabay Street by the Seven Olives Hotel.

Eat

Some of the most distinctive modern architecture in Ethiopia can be found in the small and isolated highland town of Lalibela

Drink

Sleep

Lalibela has an extremely high proportion of faranji seeking accommodation, as opposed to locals; consequently budget accommodation is scarce and overpriced.

Many "tourist class" hotels have been built recently but the owners and managers have often never visited Addis Ababa – never mind travelled outside Ethiopia – and seem to suffer the delusion that guests from Europe, Asia and Australasia will not understand prices in birr. Consequently they invariably will quote a laughably high price in US dollars at first.

Prices quoted below are for the low season of June-August and hoteliers will try to extort a much higher price during festivals and other busy times.

Most tourist class lodgings are concentrated in two areas:

Shimbrima at the north-western end of Adebabay St, many with stunning escarpment views and a gentle climb to the economic centre of town and a steeper descent to the church complexes
Getergie at the south-western end of town, on and off Getergie Rd and without the stunning escarpment views (but still with fine views of the surrounding buttes and mesas) but still a long way to the bus station on the eastern side of town. Hotels in this district have both a steep climb to the church complexes and then an equally steep climb to the economic centre of town. However, maybe it's better to stagger downhill to your bed after a day's sightseeing?

For those arriving by bus, this very basic hotel may save them both some dosh and a long uphill hike to the town proper:

North

Central

South

Hinterland

Cope

Local children might ask you to buy schoolbooks and pens for them. You should not, as they will return the books and keep the money.

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This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Friday, January 01, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.