The Amazing Churches of Lalibela

Before we went to Ethiopia this summer, I didn't know much about the country so I looked for blogs on the topic and mostly found humanitarian trips people took where they went to meet the locals and do some kind of project.  I learned that the people were friendly, curious about life in foreign places, and generally looking for a way to feed their families while sharing whatever they had with whomever visited. Ethiopia has one of the largest populations in Africa and has suffered with drought,  civil war, and a lack of services to its population (like clean water).  Not an easy life.

Our first day in Addis Ababa we went to a travel agency to see what they recommended for a few days of touring.  We only had 4 days before the fasting of Ramadan began and my husband prefers not to travel during that time. He recommended flying north to Axum, Lalibela, Gonder, and then driving to Bahir Dar to fly back to Addis. There's a cheaper way to fly to various points within Ethiopia.  Buy your international ticket with Ethiopian Airlines.  It was amazing how much the cost went down when we purchased a ticket between Kenya and Ethiopia with them (like from $1100 to 400!).  The airline had great service and the prices were reasonable.  We made no hotel or guide reservations, preferring to just show up at the airport and select someone.  It worked out well, so don't be afraid to try this yourself if you plan to visit.  You'll have options. I might also add that since all of these cities are in the highlands, you won't need to take malaria drugs.  We only saw mosquitoes in Axum anyway, in spite of this being the rainy season.

Axum is the storage place for the ark of the covenant, though no one except for the priest who guards it has ever laid eyes on it.  It's a job for life for that priest. The other cities- Gonder and Bahir Dar have natural beauty, while Gonder also has historic castles and churches. They were all interesting, but Lalibela stood out.  It's a UNESCO heritage site due to the number of rock hewn churches, which are built from one individual stone.  When you consider these buildings are enormous and 900 years old, it is a modern marvel and I'm surprised they aren't included on the Great Wonders of the World.  Perhaps if they had been more accessible.  This is a rugged, mountain top village which only got paved roads in the past 20 years.  It had been pretty isolated. The churches recently had coverings placed over them, that although unsightly should help protect them so they survive a few hundred more years.
A well for holy water in the front of the church.  Notice the protective covering.

There are 11 churches.  Considered to be the Jerusalem of Ethiopia, orthodox Christians come on foot traveling days or weeks to get here and up to 100,000 people per year visit. They are all looking for blessings that come from being at the churches, which were built from the top down.  Priests are always on hand to pray with you, for you, and give blessings with holy water.  People want to touch the walls of the churches and pray inside.  If you're a tourist, it costs $50 for a 3 day pass to see all of the churches.  You'll need your passport to purchase and it's half price for children.  We spent our first day meeting the people and seeing the village with a guide, which you can read about here, which I think was a good introduction.  I believe otherwise, they would just have been these amazing buildings, but now I understand why they are still used and how the people live according to religious principles, in spite of having next to nothing.

Holy water here which was splashed on people who were blessed
We only had a half day left, so we opted to see just the few located in the village.  They are truly spectacular, but what makes them even more interesting is seeing how they are still in use after all these years.  When you arrive at the office, you make payment. Then we had a guide take us through.  You can do it alone, but you get more out of it having a guide.  Shoes must be removed to go inside and there are shoekeepers who will move your shoes from one place to another and watch them for you.  It's customary to give them a tip.  These are very poor people who rely heavily on tips to feed themselves and their families, so carry some smaller bills for this purpose. You keep moving forward through the churches, so you won't return to the entrance.
St. George church is below ground

This was one of the few that had supporting columns made of bricks

Detailed carvings and paint are present inside the arches and often on the ceilings

A group of prayerful visitors

Notice how the church just grows out of the stone
I was lucky to receive photos from one of the shoekeepers after we returned home again.  They have religious celebrations after the fasting, and these are photos from the village at that time. This is a day called Ashenda. You can read more about it at the link.  It's apparently only done in the northern part of Ethiopia.  The skirts are made from the grass that has grown during the rainy season.

Overall, this was an amazing experience.  It's right up there with the pyramids of Giza, with the difference being these are alive with people.  They aren't just tourist attractions.  While you're there, you feel like you're experiencing something from another lifetime and you can imagine what it must have been like when they were first built and filled with prayerful followers of the King who had them built.  King Lalibela has since been named a saint by the church, by the way.  Go see these in your lifetime.


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