Published: June 2nd 2010
June 2nd 2010
Bet Medhane Alem - Drum
Used to punctuate/accentuate/give rhythm to the Ge'ez chanting
In my guidebook re: Lalibela, the author quotes Francisco Alvares: “I am weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more… but I swear by God in Whose power I am, that all that is written is the truth, and there is much more than what I have written…” (Lonely Planet: Ethiopia, 156)
I hate to bite from the guidebook, but any discussion of Lalibela, really ought to be prefaced with precisely those words. Lalibela, named after the King of Ethiopia’s original dynastic capital, historically referred to as “the new Jerusalem,” is renowned for its 12th century rock hewn churches, some of which were carved tirelessly into the earth with rudimentary hand tools by the hands of thousands of men, others, the overnight work of angels.
A tour of the 11 churches begins just behind the ticket office after a short presentation on their history by, for us, the Deacon of Bet Giorgis (St. George Church) and a brief overview of how to navigate the two clusters beginning with Bet Medahne Alem (The Savior of the World). Having spoken with a few other tourists who had
already done the loop, we chose to turn down the guide ready and waiting by the exit of the ticket office and to just walk through the first 6 churches by ourselves. Also, by the time we arrived in Lalibela, checked into our hotel, and purchased our 4-day passes to the historical sites of the city (300Br), it was nearly 11am and everything in Lalibela, including the churches, shuts down at noon for a 2hour midday lunch break. Bet Medhane Alem is not only the largest of the 11 churches, but the largest rock hewn church in the world. All of the 11 churches are unique; Medhane Alem is no exception, not simple because of its size, but also its style. The exterior walls are more cleanly detailed and the windows are each punctuated with a different style of cross.
Beyond Medhane Alem is Bet Maryam (St Mary’s Church). What I found to be the most interesting feature of this church, connected to two smaller chapels: Bet Meskel (The Holy Cross) and Bet Danaghel (The Church of the Virgin), was the ceiling, decorated with coloured carvings of various patterns which looked to me Celtic in influence, and symbols such
as the two-headed bird which was believed to have guarded the Arc of the Covenant.
As we did not have a guide, we admittedly missed out on some of the more subtle characteristics of these churches such as carvings which have been weathered over the last millennia, pillars wrapped in cloth or marking the entrance to an unexplored tunnel, different rock hewn representations of the Holy Trinity etc. As lunchtime was fast approaching, we were rushed through the next three churches, Bet Gogotha, Bet Mikael, Selassie Chapel, and the Tomb of Adam, among which King Lalibela is also believed to be entombed. For travelers similarly taking on the option of a self-guided tour through the first cluster, I would recommend simply doing your homework before going to Lalibela and making note of a few things to keep an eye out for. It is unlikely that a guide will direct your attention any differently.
Having said that, a guide for the second cluster of churches is a must-have (not legally, it will just enrich your experience). We lucked into meeting another Canadian at our hotel, The Asheton, who had already contracted a guide for a 2-day tour of the
2 clusters at the cost of 500Br who was more than willing to have us join her for the afternoon and split the remainder of the cost - a bargain for a group totaling 5. I have heard that a group of 4 can get an all-day tour for the cost of approximately 300Br, but 500 was the lowest price we were quoted by any of the guides official or public that we came in contact with during our stay in Lalibela. So, 3 recommendations before moving on:
#1 The Asheton Hotel: The staff is funny and nice enough, but will try to rip you off by charging some sort of “finder’s fee” for a guide if you ask for their assistance. Don’t pay them; pay the guide whichever price you arrange WITH the guide himself. The food in the hotel’s restaurant is really terrible -- spare yourself the experience of their macchiato which is really just sub-par Ethiopian coffee with powdered milk. At this point your probably wondering why I said I had three RECOMMENDATIONS haha but I’m getting to it. The hotel is clean and secure and traditionally decorated with clothed walls and embroidered bedding; it has
Place of George - Built on the request of St. George himself, commissioned by King Lalibela
a stocked bar open until about 10pm and a colourful, fragrant, sunset-facing outdoor garden. Something the guidebook makes note of, a friend told me, AND the receptionist mentioned after I made our reservation over the phone was that they have an amenity every traveler looks for in budget accommodations. They have hot showers.
Side Note: I have been told by friends that a nice, slightly higher-end option for accommodations is the Heaven Guesthouse, the only con of which is that it is located away from the center of town (restaurants, ticket office etc.)
#2 The Seven Olives Restaurant: You will undoubtedly be directed to this hotel restaurant upon request for a recommendation of a forenji-friendly menu. While the restaurant directly across the dirt road from the Asheton boasts that it is “Recommended by Farngi” it’s hard to see from the outside exactly why. As none of us were in the mood to gamble with our oddly healthy stomachs at the time, we opted to go to The Seven Olives for both lunch and dinner on Saturday. The menu is extensive and fairly priced, each of our meals was tasty or better, and while service was a little slow,
Sof told us that many scholars believe there are hundreds of mummies in the Lalibela tombs
everyone was very friendly. My favourite meal was the pepper steak, though a friend of mine gobbled up his roasted chicken salad with impressive speed and evident satisfaction.
#3 Sof: Sof (short form, pronounced ‘sofe’) was our guide in the afternoon. He is a young guy who studied communications at Bahir Dar University and, after graduation, worked for a local paper for some time before becoming fed up with all of the content restrictions and deciding to return home and become a tour guide for Lalibela’s immediate and surrounding historical sights. His English was great, he was entertaining and enjoyable to chat with between churches, and while he pointed out all of the typical attractions, he was able to answer all of our questions and added stories of a few legends along the way. We all liked him so much that we met up with him and some of his friends later that night at a local place down the road from The Seven Olives (follow the music) to share some St. George beers.
I’m not sure there are many countries in the world where one of the nations most venerated Saints, most popular ancient structures, most frequented
Only accessible by this recently constructed bridge... or by some other entrance that has not yet been discovered.
tourist attractions, and most widely consumed alcoholic beverage are one in the same. Our tour of the second cluster began at Bet Giyorgis aka St. George Church. St. George is always pictured holding a spear and standing triumphantly over a vicious dragon. The story of St. George is that, in his time, a woman was sacrificed each year to a dragon. He decided that beautiful and innocent woman should not be senselessly given to die, stepped in, and slayed the dragon, saving the chosen woman. “The Place of George” has its own legend. While each of the other churches are linked by tunnels and deep, narrow passageways, Bet Giyorgis stands alone, its roof level with the ground approximately 15m from the base of the cross-shaped church. It is also unique because, unlike the other churches, there are no supportive pillars within the interior of the church in order for it to maintain the uninterrupted shape of the cross. It is believed that St. George himself visited King Lalibela’s rock hewn churches and was upset by the fact that non of them were constructed in his name so Lalibela had this awesome holy place built immediately. My guide realized very early
Priest reading the Holy Book
Photo taken from small prayer room inside Bet G-R where most of the natural damage has occurred
on in the tour that I am incredibly gullible and will believe just about anything I’m told so he pointed out some footholds in the wall and said they were the hoof prints of a horse. “REALLY?” I said, not questioning how a horse could make such deep impressions in solid red stone. Local tradition does claim that these indentations were made by the hooves of St. George’s armoured white horse so I suppose he was only half-kidding. Inside the church there is a large stone chest sealed with two massive hand-carved screws. St. George’s cross, carved from Solomon’s gold, is believed to be held inside the chest. Sof pointed out another interesting feature of St. George’s Church, and that was its contradictory drainage system. Water is channeled off of the roof and subsequently funneled into two tanks beyond its surrounding walls. The contradiction lies in the design of the church’s windows. Those on the lower level are “false,” sealed off to withstand flooding the likes of which Noah’s Arc floated atop of. Within the walls also sits a small pond approximately 6’x5’ filled with rootless green grass. The grass is harvested each Easter and tied around the heads of
M entering the dark tunnel to Bet Merkorios
YOu had to walk with one hand over your head and one hand on the side walls because it was SO pitch black in this tunnel. That, or put a lot of faith in the person infront of you, hang on to their backpack, and learn from their mistakes: "Ouch! look out, the ceiling dips." haha
worshippers as a symbol of the Crown of Thorns. Finally, though certainly not the last of the things to note about this bewilderingly impressive structure, is the tombs carved into the surrounding walls. Through the screen which fences off one of the tombs (most are empty and have been left open, the whereabouts of the bodies unknown and some were, over time, converted into storage spaces) you can actually see mummified human remains. Sof told us that archeologists believe there are hundreds of bodies resting deep beneath Lalibela. These bodies are not mummified in the Egyptian way; they were preserved in certain ways and dried out, left uncovered and exposed within the tombs. This is one of the reasons that some of the tunnels and underground caves/shrines have not been extensively explored to date because, while archeologists are sure that some Holy artifacts lie within them, they are also unsure of what else might be buried in the earth.
Thoroughly creeped out, we walked over to the only rock hew church in Lalibela that you access at ground level instead of 11-16+m below, Bet Gabriel-Rufael. The bridge which links the surrounding walls to the entrance of the church has
est.600yr old fresco of one of the 12 Apostles in Bet Merkorios
obviously been recently constructed; scholars are not yet sure where the original main entrance to the church was, or if it was in fact this narrow opening, how priests and pilgrims reached it. Trying to break the lingering mummy-related tension, the other Canadian, Melody, and I suggested the “Tarzan” method… and then proceeded to explain what we were “awwww eeee awwww ee-aw-ee-awwwwwww”-ing about when asked with concerned looks from some of the other members of our group. Who knew that Tarzan wasn’t an international phenomenon? Anyways, the inside of Bet Gabriel-Rufael is less impressive than you would expect it to be after making such a grand entrance because of damage from the elements, particularly flooding which caused part of the roof to collapse.
We passed through a small chapel back into the open air some 16m+ below ground level at which point Sof asked us just how adventurous we were feeling. There are two routes to Bet Merkorios, the next church in the Southeastern cluster: the first is back through the chapel and over the bridge; the second is through a long, shallow, narrow, and pitch-black stone tunnel. Obviously, we chose the latter route. Guidebooks recommend you bring a
torch when touring Lalibela for this reason, but Sof forbid us from using ours. We then found him at the end of the tunnel just beyond a little inlet where he had been hiding to freak us out where the roof also dips especially low lighting the way with his cell phone… cheater. Haha At the end of the tunnel, you reach a small flight of stairs, the steps of which are so shallow and steep that they actually serve more as a ladder than stairs, which delivers you back into the glaring sunlight. The most notable feature of this church is the frescoes on the interior walls. One, estimated to have been completed following the construction of the church depicts 3 jovial-looking wise men. Another was completed at a later date, approximately 600years ago, and depicts the 12 Apostles. Time has taken its toll on the artwork which is draped over, carved into, and painted onto the walls of the churches but they are nonetheless impressive.
Next, Bet Amanual is the most neatly carved church among the 11 with obvious Aksumite influences. The windows for example, are in the shape of the Aksum monument further north of Lalibela
Bet Abba Libanos
Said to have been built by Lalibela's wife in 1 night
which looks undeniably falic, arguably like most free-standing structures in the world tend to. If you need further elaboration, I tend to think the shape (I am going to get brutally mocked for this one when I get home) looks like the silhouette of a short man, arms at his side, with a bowl-shaped on. Inside this church, as was the case within some of the others, there is a small chapel/prayer room which only men are allowed to enter. Don’t bother unleashing a feminist rant on any of the priests; even in Bet Maryham, a church named after the most venerated female Saint in Ethiopia, this is the case and the priests just laugh as they block your path shaking their heads saying, “ah ah, no woman.” Another aside: the priests that sit alone in each of the churches all day every day reading the Holy Book (inscribed in the ancient language from which modern Amharic is derived - though even native Amharic speakers cannot understand it - Ge’ez) are usually willing to show you a few of the traditional crosses and, when asked by a guide, will allow you to take a flash picture (flashes strictly prohibited within
the churches) of them for the price of a small contribution to the church.
Last but not least, our journey took us to Bet Abba Libanos. En route, one of our group asked why the passageways got narrower towards the bottom. My answer: if YOU were in charge of digging those passageways, and you’d been digging for 20years with only a chisel to aid you, would you care if it was a little wider at the top and the bottom or just be glad that your work had served its purpose and the routes were passable? Again, the inside of Libanos was not that remarkable. Whoever is in charge of the maintenance of these structures is apparently not too concerned with interior decorating beyond a few throw-rugs on the floors but I suppose there is something to be said for maintaining their original simplicity. But actually, the outside of this church was one of my favorites as it only has one outside wall; it is otherwise embedded in the earth, hallowed from the inside-out.
At the end of the tour, Sof took us on a short walk through the monastery, a maze of tiny thatch-roofed huts where all
P Kicking a Ball around with the Lalibela Kiddos
The kids make soccer balls out of nylon stuffed with socks!
the priests and their families live. In general, I found the people of Lalibela, one of the most remote parts of the country, to be surprisingly literate (particularly the younger generation), and genuinely friendly. I was worried that being home to one of the most popular tourist attractions in the nation would have created a tourist culture in the city, but aside from the kids collecting foreign currency (bring a few coins, their collections are actually quite cool - one kid showed me a Canadian dime which he knew as the Bluenose!) and selling traditional handcrafted leather cross necklaces, we experienced virtually no harassment - notably less than in Addis or any other region I have traveled to in Ethiopia. P kicked a ball around with a few little kids, I got into a conversation with a guy about my age who had helped me reload my cell phone, Melody went and watched part of a rugby match with our guide and we all went out in the town that evening and hung out in a truly local place without any trouble at all. It was just really nice. Saturday is also a market day in Lalibela. We didn’t have
Special Toyota Landcruiser
Carried us 650km, 21hours in 2days
any spare time to walk to the other side of town to the market, but we did drive through it in the morning; it was large in comparison to other markets I have been in and looked as if it would have some interesting locally made goods.
A huge part of this trip was not about the destination, but about the journey. Having heard from locals and fellow expats alike that the drive was not to be missed—and they were so right. Do not let yourself be dissuaded by the challenge of hiring a car and driver for a fair price because the 650km drive, typically completed over two days with a stop in either Dessie or, more commonly, Waldia, is more than worth the effort and the cost (equal to or marginally higher that the cost of a roundtrip flight when coupled with a one-way return), and the aching tush! The scenery (colours, features, settlement patterns) changes constantly along the way. Recommendations: make sure you hire a 4x4 with a spare tire and a sound system. I would estimate that about 50% of the road was unfinished or unSTARTED which made for a slow, bumpy ride at various
points over the course of our 16hour trek on day 1. Also, if you are at all sensitive to motion, bring some Gravol because parts of the road had us all feeling a bit… off. We left at about 5am from Addis and arrived in Waldia just 150km from Lalibela just as the sun was setting behind the hills. We stayed at The Lal Hotel, which is apparently the best in town but for any reason other than that, I would not recommend it. The staff where pretty apathetic, even rude, and while the restaurant is open until 10, they stopped serving anything other than shiro at about 8. Our shower didn’t work, but the boys’ did. Unfortunately, you couldn’t get the bathroom door open when you were finished so you were trapped in the bathroom until somebody across the hall heard you banging and calling for help. We left Waldia again at 5am and were in Lalibela by 10. Each day we stopped at a few along the road points for 1 of 2 reasons.: either our fairly hilarious driver needed to wake himself up with a little dance on the roadside, or the scenery was too good to
just modify the shutter speed on our cameras and hope for the best moving snapper possible.
As we only had a 3-day weekend, courtesy of another Ethiopian holiday, this one dedicated to the fall of the Dergue, we flew back on the Sunday. Again, we had been given a tip by those who had traveled from Lalibela before us, to be at the airport even earlier than 2 hours ahead of time because the plane takes off as soon as its ready, not as soon as the passengers have all arrived or even as scheduled. This was, however, not to be our fate. Our plane took off about 45 minutes after the scheduled departure time. We had a scheduled 1.2hour stopover in Gondar which turned into 2hours as we waiting for the torrential rain to stop - which was just fine by me considering the last Ethiopian Airlines crash as a result of a take-off into bad weather. Other than that, the flight was fairly uneventful. It was a small plane seating 4 across so the ride got a bit bumpy at points causing us all to yet again feel a bit… off… especially when the woman sitting directly
Sun setting after a rain-storm (we pulled the car over, got out, and danced barefoot in it) just south of Waldia
in front of me started feeling VERY off. Bleh.
It really was a great weekend. Tuesday night I attended the Italian Day Baroque concert at the national theatre where, though I’m no connoisseur, the quintet _____ performed beautifully, and Wednesday night I changed it up with a bit of some Harlem-style reggae with Kenny Allen. There’s always something going on in Addis…
Guwadegna - Friend
Yetteffa - Lost
Ato - Mr.
Weyizero/Weyizereet - Mrs./Miss.
Ke Canada Negn - I am from Canada!
Gulbetéyé tegodtuwal - My knee hurts
YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN ETHIOPIA WHEN…
…you see a young woman dragging herself down the middle of a busy street refusing help and directing cars to go around her.
…you sit outside for 5minutes and get burnt. You then get mocked for carrying around a tiny bottle of sunscreen SPF45. You get even more mocked when the sunscreen isn’t enough and the screen over the table is broken so the entire group is forced to move into the shade.
Love Always ‘n Ever,
There are more photos below