In awe of King Lalibela’s New Jerusalem

Trip Start Sep 25, 2010
Trip End Apr 01, 2011

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Flag of Ethiopia  ,
Saturday, February 5, 2011

After yet another spectacular scenic flight over the arid mountain ranges of Northern Ethiopia, we arrived in Lalibela in the late morning. We hopped on the shuttle with several other tourists for the hour long ride into town. Upon arrival at the Mountain View Hotel, in front of which stood a tall pole with a waving Belgian flag (courtesy for the recent visit of the mayor of the small town of Peer), we were immediately blown away by the pristine views offered at nearly every inch of the hotel. The aptly named lodging was perfectly situated on the western face of a mountain-edge. For the moment there are barely any structures in direct view, just a single winding road extending down the mountain which was never occupied by more than one car at a time during our stay. What's more is that the view doesn’t end with sunset, because once night falls the sky ignites with a blanket of stars so dense that it almost looks like continuous light. Although, as with all travel destinations, the real sites to see are outside of your hotel walls, we made a point to have our lunches and dinners at the Mountain View to take advantage of the rare opportunity to enjoy this perspective of the world.

On the ride from the airport we met Thaddeus, who we decided to hire as our local guide for our 2 day tour of the area. He turned out to be the perfect choice, both because he was pleasant to have around, but also because he was Deacon by training making him ideally suited to share the history and customs of this deeply religious place. King Lalibela was the founder of the Zagwe Dynasty which ruled Ethiopia from 1137-1270 AD and is credited with lifting the country out of the preceding "dark ages." Legend has it that King Lalibela decided to built this city after he was poisoned by his jealous, thrown-hungry brothers. During 3 days of deep coma, he received instructions from God to build a New Jerusalem in Ethiopia. He ultimately recovered and immediately began his mission to save his people the hardships and tragedies of the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which required crossing hostile Muslim territories in Egypt.

In our first afternoon in Lalibela, we visited the north-western group of rock-hewn churches. I had heard the term, 'rock-hewn,’ numerous times in the lead up to our visit but never truly grasped the concept until stepping up to the foot of one of Lalibela’s churches. The entire church structure, along with 6 other churches is carved from a single rock mountain! The builders began from the top and chiseled down deep into the stone, carving out every last detail such as the walls, pillars, arches, windows, and decorative features. Nothing was left for insertion, other than fresco paintings or tapestries. Wandering through the maze of these structures was simply mind-blowing.

Our experience was further amplified when on day two we, together with hundreds of pilgrims dressed in white cloth, attended an early morning healing ceremony. During the holy day ritual, a priest places the sacred Lalibela Cross on various body parts of one pilgrim after another. The whole scene is made all the more captivating by the subdued and rhythmic chanting, drumming, and ringing of an all-male choir. As so many guidebooks suggest, we felt we were experiencing Christianity in its rawest and purest form.

Before visiting a second round of visits to the rock-hewn churches inside Lalibela, we took the highly recommended 4WD day trip to Yemrehanna Kristos monestary. Located some 45km outside of Lalibela it is known to be Ethiopia’s best-preserved Aksumite structure. Unlike the rock-hewn models of the regional capital, the monestary, which predates Lalibela’s structures by about 80 years, was built such that it sits inside a cave. Behind the church we found mummified bodies of pilgrims who apparently came to the monastery to die over the centuries. A pretty macabre sight to say the least. 

As soon as we had returned to Lalibela, we started to explore the south-eastern group of rock-hewn churches by entering through Bet-Gabriel-Rufael with its “Way to Heaven”. The churches that form part of the complex were smaller in size than those found in the north-western group, but the carvings were definitely more intricate. Bet Giyorgis, a church shaped as a Greek Cross, was by far the most impressive.

Our last night we spent enjoying another excellent plate of fasting food and some more stargazing. I thought nothing would ever beat the spectacular star-dotted sky I saw in Glacier National Park, Montana, but Lalibela proved me wrong. Our visit had been the absolute highlight of our trip to Ethiopia. In addition to the historic sites, the natural beauty and remoteness of their surroundings is stunning. The next day we flew back to Adis Ababa where we had a relaxing afternoon topped off by a delicious, brick-oven pizza dinner at Antica restaurant.   

Next Stop: Uganda
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