12 – Lalibela: The Churches That Rocked

12 – Lalibela: The Churches That Rocked

We dropped off our bags at Red Rock Hotel in Lalibela. It was a nice hotel, though touristy so a bit pricey. As per usual, we went straight there without a reservation, checked they had water and electricity and then negotiated a cheaper price. We agreed on six hundred birrs (seventeen pounds) instead of the thirty-five dollars originally asked.

The kitty cats below our hotel room 🐈🐱

We were enjoying a free coffee at the hotel reception when Mule (pronounced Moolay) popped up. Mule spoke excellent English; in fact, he spoke a bit too much excellent English! Once we got him started, we could not get him to stop hehe. Mule offered to be our guide for the churches in Lalibela (the main tourist attraction here). He said he would give us a discount as he had seen we had arrived by bus and had negotiated our hotel price, so figured we were not your standard tourists. We enjoyed his company so decided to take him on as our guide. He also kept saying cute things like “sharing makes happiness”.

View over Lalibela

We left immediately for Mule’s tour. The entrance ticket to the churches was expensive (fifty dollars each for international tourists) but it was worth it. The churches were different to anything we had ever seen before. Like the Tigray Churches, they were also rock-hewn (see post N°8). Though this time they were not up a mountain, but underground.

In Lalibela there are eleven churches, of varying sizes, that have been sculpted into the surrounding volcanic rock, (basaltic scoria for the geology fanatics out there). Mule guided us for an afternoon and a morning around the churches, all of which are connected by tunnels, stairs and trenches.

The network of churches was built between the eleventh and twelfth centuries by King Lalibela. (Lalibela means honey eating. When the King was a baby, he was surrounded by a swarm of bees without being stung. His mother saw this as a sign from God that he would become a powerful King). King Lalibela wanted to create a new Jerusalem, a place where his people could go on pilgrimage.

There are two groups of churches. The first, to the North, represents Jerusalem on Earth. It even uses some of the same names (Golgotha, Mount Calvary etc). The southerly group, however, represents the heavenly Jerusalem (with a judgement tunnel, churches named after angels etc). Legend has it that King Lalibela built the churches with only a handful of workers. They say he was helped during the night by angels who came to finish his work. Perhaps President Macron, who wants to rebuild Notre Dame in five years, could contact the same angels?

The churches’ designs hold great symbolic meaning: here four pillars represent the evangelists, there seven steps serve as a reminder of the seven sacraments, elsewhere three windows symbolize Jesus and the two thieves on the cross.

The seven sacrement steps

We were not the only ones visiting the churches. Ethiopian pilgrims, all dressed in white, flocked to meditate and pray there. As they entered each church, they went straight to the priest who blessed them with a golden cross.

Since the site has been labelled a UNESCO World Heritage site, it has received preservation funds from the European Union. Large plastic roofs held up by enormous metal pillars protect most of the churches from further rainwater erosion. These protections were a bit of a quick-fix and ruin the view of the churches. Our guide said they will be replaced by better structures in the future.

Here is a brief summary of the churches that we visited:

Bet Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World) is the biggest church in Lalibela. It was sculptured from one rock! It measures thirty-three metres long, twenty-three metres wide and eleven metres high. It looks like a giant Greek temple that has sunk into the ground. Inside, the ceiling is held up by enormous pillars. Towards the altar are three empty tombs awaiting Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Bet Medhane Alem from above
Bet Medhane Alem from below

Bet Maryam (House of Mary), is thought to be the oldest of all the churches. It is smaller than the others and looks like a house with porch made from brown stone. On the back wall are a series of little windows. The top three represent the Trinity. The three below symbolise Jesus and the two thieves on the cross. The thief on the right is saved and therefore goes to heaven (the window above him). The thief on the left is headed for hell (the window below him).

Can you work out which window is which?

Next to Bet Maryam are the chapels of Bet Meskel and Bet Danaghel. Both are dug into the cliffside, like caves. Bet Danaghel (House of the Virgin Martyrs) is dedicated to, as you may have guessed: virgins! That may sound nice, but outside it in the courtyard there is a pool that is alleged to heal infertile women (after they have paid the church and been dunked three times whilst attached to ropes!)  Horrific.

The pool 😲

Next, we went through a little tunnel to Bet Mikael, a small church, perched above a staircase. Inside, the walls were decorated with different types of crosses, e.g. Maltese, Greek, and Lalibellian? Lalibelanian? Lalibelline? Lalibelite? Lalibelese? Lalibelonian? Lalibelish? crosses.

The Lalibela cross

Bet Giorgis (House of Saint George) is the most well-known of all the churches in Lalibela. It is a large cross-shaped building which sits in a hole about fifteen metres deep. The cruciform roof almost reaches ground level. Bet Giorgis, built over seven hundred years ago, was a remarkable feat of engineering. Firstly, like the others, it was carved out of a single massive block of rock. Secondly, it has an ingenious water drainage system stopping it from flooding. Thirdly, despite being underground, light manages to enter the tiny windows and illuminate sculptures inside.

Bet Giorgis from above

Bet Merkorios, is integrated into a hillside and is accessed via a thirty-five metre, narrow, pitch-black tunnel. The tunnel is said to represent the path to heaven or hell. We walked the tunnel in the pitch black, with one hand above our heads and the other on the wall beside us. It definitely had its intended effect: it was rather daunting going through it!

Last but not least was Bet Amanuel, another impressive, rectangular shaped church. We accessed it via a staircase dug into the rock. The Priest sat at the door, reading his scriptures and basking in the sunlight.  

After visiting all these exceptional buildings, we left feeling in awe of the excellent workmanship (whether angels intervened or not). It is so impressive to think all the churches were built without machinery! Combining architectural and sculptural genius, Lalibela is another jewel of Ethiopia.

With time flying by and the expiry dates of our visas fast approaching, it was time to head South. First step: Addis-Ababa. Second step: the Kenyan border.

4 Replies to “12 – Lalibela: The Churches That Rocked”

  1. 😯 wow sounds like these churches qualify to be listed with the 7 wonders of the world. Enjoy Addis- Ababa – Kev has been there, so first place we are slightly familiar with. Much ♥️Lx

  2. Lilac Breasted roller land safely in Mudeford. Thank you clever budgies, can’t think how you found time to send postcards. Hugely appreciated xxxx

  3. Pretty amazing! Remarkably straight! I hadn’t realised there were a number of different churches at this site.

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