A smooth mid morning flight took us to Lalibela via Gondar. We arrived around noon and our driver and guide who were supposed to meet us didn’t. Good start. We secured a ride to our accommodation and were met by Hilo(sp), our guide for the rest of the afternoon and all the next day. He was apologetic, there was a mis-communication and he was really sorry. We easily forgave him and he turned out to be a blessing. He was an expert in all things Lalibela and area. He is an icon in his community due to his past foray into local politics and his earlier involvement in social work with the local women and children. His history in the village is iconic in that his grandfather was the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in Lalibela, one of the two holiest cities in Ethiopia.
Lalibela is famous for it’s UNESCO designated World Heritage rock-cut monolithic churches and the whole area in and around Lalibela represents a legacy of the medieval and post-medieval civilizations in Ethiopia dating from the 7th to 13th centuries.
The churches are quite incredible. Chiseled, I suppose by thousands of workers, they cut mostly granite rock to carve out these incredible buildings.
It is mind boggling to try to understand how this was done. Like many amazing temples in India and elsewhere, it was not done overnight but in many cases, 15, 25, even 50 or 100 years to complete. Amazing.
We visited four of the five northwestern clutches of churches in the afternoon, Bet Medhane Alem, Bet Marymam and Bet Mikael & Bet Golgotha.
Some of the walks were uphill and we noticed how out of breath we were. Lalibela is 2,500 metres above sea level, 8,200 feet so the air was much thinner than what we were used to. Our lodge was situated on a hill and of course our unit was located downhill about 50 steps and a long steep walkway. We were exhausted just walking up to breakfast. I know, boohoo but you do feel the air difference.
We had the next day to visit some of the other sites in the area so the next morning we drove 45 km to see the Church of Yimrehane Kristos, an 11th/12th century Ethiopian Orthadox church built of stone and wood and set in an entrance to a natural cave which is now unfortunately walled off due to, well, bad robber guys stealing all of the treasures stored in the cave monastery. The scenerary on the drive to the site was exceptional.
Big walls really reduce the visual impact and the overall impression you have. Although the the inside was incredibly interesting, you couldn’t help but imagine what the whole surrounding area would look like if there wasn’t this big wall covering the entrance to the cave. The site was very interesting but a bit of a disappointment due to the walls at the cave entrance.
We made our back to Lalibela and stopped for lunch at a old Scottish ladies very eclectic restaurant, Ben Abeba, located on probably the best view point in all of Lalibela. The views of the surroundings were spectacular and the shepherds pie we had was pretty good too.
Our final stop was a visit to the three southeastern clutches of churches, Bet Gabriel-Rufael, Bet Amanual and the famous Bet Giyorgis, St. Georges Church. Chiseled out of solid granite it is an example of the human labour and dedication that was required to carve these monumental structures out of solid rock.
We were standing on the granite surface facing The Church of Saint George and I tried to picture how it all started.
Out on the rock was Ismailiya, a young man with his chisel and a crude form of hammer in hand. He had a plan and he started chiseling. Little bits of rock flew off with each hit of the hammer. Some stuck to his sweaty brow but he was determined. The next day, his ears ringing big time from all of the steel-to-rock hammering he heard a greeting and then a question from one of his friends. “How’s it going Ismailiya, how are you? Great, how are you? Good, what are you doing? Chiselling a church out of solid granite to show my love and dedication to um, well, the church and stuff. Making progress? Yes, very much. How much longer till you figure you’ll be done? Oh, about a thousand years…”