A Tourist’s Guide to the Ancient Churches of Lalibela

Seated at 2630m, Lalibela is a small town in Northern Ethiopia. It is considered a sacred place for Ethiopians and is a site of pilgrimage. Named after King Lalibela who ruled Ethiopia at the end of the 12th century, Lalibela translates to “person who loves honey”. Locals claim the King was given his name when bees surrounded his mother after he was born. Lalibela is a World Heritage Site and is famous the World over for its rock hewn Churches.

Getting there

Plane

An hour’s flight away from Addis Ababa with Ethiopian Airlines monopolizing this route and all domestic flights within the country. It is not uncommon for passengers to be assigned to the jump seat next to the pilot if the flight has been over booked. Since Lalibela is located on a set of rolling hills, the airport is an hour’s drive away from the town. Most hotels offer a free shuttle service to and from the airport. The view along the road is amazing.

Bus

A 2 day bus ride from Addis Ababa with an overnight stop along the way gets you to Lalibela. Don’t expect 4-lane expressways.

See

Rock Hewn Churches

A 3-day pass will allow you to explore these ancient wonders though if you’re stretched for time, a day will probably suffice. Churches open between 8 am and 5:30 pm and are closed for lunch between 1 pm and 2 pm. Lunch hour equates to the caretaker locking up the Church and disappearing. In other words, don’t bust a gut trying to get back at 2pm.

Starting off at the museum, you get a glimpse of a few paintings, crowns, etc. It’s quite remarkable how no one seems to give two hoots about these ancient artifacts and they are just stashed away in a dilapidated glass-door cupboard.

Walking out of the museum you get introduced to the first Church and the largest one – Bet Medhane Alem (Saviour of the World). Feast your eyes on the largest rock hewn Church in the World. Photography might be a trickier task. The huge ugly UNESCO scaffolding makes it impossible to get a decent shot. It’s quite amazing how this massive monolith was carved out of sheer stone in the 12th Century.

Within his lifetime, King Lalibela not only completed this Church but built 10 other similar structures segregated into 3 sections. Scholars estimate that 40,000 labourers would be required to complete the construction pf all Churches within Lalibela’s lifetime. This has created a rift in the academic circles where one group claims that these Churches were built over several centuries while the other group claims Lalibela built them all. The locals claim that the angels built the Churches.

The most remarkable of all these structures is the last Church and definitely the most famous one. An imposing Church stands right in the middle of a small mountain. Bete Giyorgis was built for Saint George, the patron saint of Ethiopia and this iconic Church has remained unfazed by the wind or rain for over 900 years.

A long, dark, narrow underground passage between 2 Churches in the South-Western group of Churches depicts the ‘Way to Heaven’ and represents the path that man has to follow in order to get to heaven. Stumbling through this passage without light and without the end in sight leaves you convinced that the path to Heaven is definitely not for the faint hearted (or the claustrophobic).

Eat

Seven Olives Hotel

Seven Olives Hotel RoofSet right in the heart of Lalibela and walking distance from the rock-hewn Churches, this restaurant provides a perfect way to cool your heels while waiting for the Churches to re-open. The roof of the hotel is thatched and consists of intricate concentric colorful circles. You would not get a stronger feel of Ethiopia anywhere else. The hotel also boasts of a curio store outside. The rooms at this hotel are unimpressive.

Lal Hotel

Reasonable food available here though there’s nothing to write home about. They do have traditional music and dance after 7 pm which is the highlight of the evening. Ethiopian dancers are renowned for their intense shoulder movements and watching this brought a new sense of admiration for this inimitable dance form. Apart from watching s coffee ceremony, getting a glimpse of the traditional Ethiopian dance is a must to get a taste of Ethiopian culture.

John Cafeteria

Tiny restaurant right in the middle of Lalibela. Excellent, cheap coffee available here if you can condition yourself to ignore the dirt, flies and mud.

Sleep

Although most hotels do have a website and email, hotels don’t support online bookings and definitely aren’t on the ball when it comes to replyin g to emails. All hotels have a booth at the airport allowing you to choose a hotel on arrival. The price of all hotels includes a free shuttle to and from the airport. This is your chance to mess with uncertainty. Just rock up and wing it. You’ll survive.

Lal Hotel

Situated right in the middle of Lalibela, this hotel provides clean and decent accommodation. Priced at 30 USD per night, the hotel can’t be classified under the budget category although the rooms do have a budget feel to it. Bathrooms do not have hot water. The hotel staff were very friendly and helped organize transport (a 25 seat bus for 3 of us) and a guide to take us around Lalibela. Bargaining skills as always come in handy.

Mountain View Hotel

The view from this hotel is fabulous. Pretty isolated from the rest of Lalibela, the glass walls of the hotel give you a breath taking view of the valley below and the horizon marked by greenish brown rolling hills. Definitely the place to stay if you can afford it.

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