Seeking refreshment among Lalibela's rock-hewn history.
My friends and I had been planning a trip to Lalibela for more than a decade. Not so much planning as procrastinating.
As a second-generation Ethiopian, I visited the country every year or so, mostly to see friends and family and sometimes more recently for work. And each time, I ended up visiting the southern lake resorts of Langano instead of the northern holy city.
But with the passage of time and a reconnection with my Ethiopian Orthodox faith, I rekindled a desire to visit the medieval cave churches.
Lalibela conjures up a mythical appeal, rather like the Taj Mahal in India, or the Sagrada Família in Spain. My friends and I initially hoped to do a northern cities historical tour, taking in Bahir Dar, Gondar, Lalibela and Axum. But complicated logistics for four of us meant that we shortened our trip to two days in Lalibela only.
In a sense, Lalibela is a microcosm of Ethiopia — combining stunning landscapes and ancient churches with a sense of otherworldliness. Churches and monasteries are perched on mountainsides overlooking steep gorges and, in one case, cloud cover that leads to the impression of being outside everyday reality. And indeed, nowhere else on the planet is there a single larger monolithic church.
Lalibela was built by King Lalibela in the 13th century as an African alternative to the holy city of Jerusalem. At the time, Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem were halted by the Muslim conquests. Lalibela’s 11 churches were not built from brick but rather carved from the living rock, sometimes underground. The blocks of rock were intricately hewn with doors, windows and drainage systems all carved out of the original stone.
Scholars disagree on King Lalibela’s motivation for this method of construction, and while the exact techniques of carving are unclear, it is said to have taken a mere 24 years to complete the impressive project. Legend has it that while the king worked with local Ethiopian artisans and architects by day, angels took over and helped them complete the task by night.
Preparations for pilgrimage
Before traveling to Lalibela, I visited my grandmother in Addis Ababa. I’d been in town for a few weeks on a business trip, making occasional visits to her home, so I wanted to bid her farewell and get a netela headscarf to cover my head in the holy places. She was delighted with my trip to Lalibela. A journey to the town is almost always equated with a search for spiritual clarity and a desire to grow in the Orthodox faith.
I was wearing my netela when I stepped off the plane at Lalibela Airport into the cold morning air. The first stop on our tour would be a monastery that lies away from the main group of churches, so we drove about 20 minutes and then walked the remaining 10 to Asheten Mariam.
Asheten Mariam is situated high above Lalibela on Mount Abuna Yosef. It is only semi-monolothic, having been carved out of a cliff face, and is thought to have been built by King Lalibela’s nephew after the other, more well-known churches. This monastery — set at an altitude of around 4,000 meters (more than 13,000 feet) — provides an impressive panorama, with mountains and lush green valleys extending from the cliff as far as the eye can see.
I was prepared for beautiful churches and awe-inspiring architecture. But why had no one told me about the mountains? Lalibela sits amid the Lasta mountain range of North Wollo, which means that almost wherever you turn, your field of vision is filled with peaks, verdant fields and tiny winding roads. It’s no wonder King Lalibela chose to build here.
The view from my hotel bedroom was just as stunning: mountain after mountain, one silhouetted behind the other in a slightly darker or lighter shade of green, and a patchwork of valley fields with clouds hanging low. Perhaps altitude-induced light-headedness clouded my judgment, but this mountain range spoke to my soul more than any other I have encountered across four continents.
Prayers and ritual
My desire to spend time in Africa’s Jerusalem combined curiosity with a genuine spiritual desire, and I had determined to maximize my time. At each church we visited, my Ethiopian companion in the group and I took time to pray, lighting candles and performing genuflections. In most Orthodox and Coptic places of worship, men and women are seated separately. So my friend and I prayed at different altars or, as in some of the smaller churches, prayed at the same altar at different times to observe the tradition. I never let a priest pass me by without making a slight nod, prompting him to take out his cross for me to kiss and be blessed.
Another standout moment from my personal pilgrimage included visiting Bete Ghiorgis church. If Lalibela is a microcosm of Ethiopia, then Bete Ghiorgis is a microcosm of Lalibela. It’s built in the shape of a cross and lies slightly away from the other 10 churches on the main site. You see it first from above and then must scramble down to explore. In fact, the physical challenge of getting in and out of all the churches was almost a spiritual feat in itself.
Overall, the combination of mountain air, early nights, reflection and the inescapable spiritual dimension gave me a breadth of perspective. I had come to Africa’s Jerusalem pretty weary and in search of spiritual succour, and I left with my spirit invigorated.
You don’t have to be Orthodox or even religious, though, to benefit from a trip to Lalibela. Amid the ancient walls, flickering candles and breathtaking beauty, even the most spiritually skeptical might find themselves suspending disbelief, if only for a few days.