Discover Ethiopia's stunning secret
Set amongst the mountains of Ethiopia, Lalibela is home to a number of rock-cut churches. Philip Briggs, author of the Bradt guide to Ethiopia, explains why they are so spectacular
The Church of St. George, Lalibela
The strange, isolated town of Lalibela, set high in the mountains of Lasta, is famed for its rock-hewn churches, and is arguably the one place in Ethiopia that no tourist should miss. Known as Roha until recent times, Lalibela was the capital of the Zagwe dynasty, which ruled over Ethiopia from the 10th century to the mid 13th century, and its modern name derives from that of the most famous of the Zagwe rulers, the 12th-century King Lalibela.
According to local legend, Lalibela was born the brother of the incumbent king. As a young child he was covered by a swarm of bees, which his mother took as a sign that he would one day be king himself. (One reported translation of Lalibela is ‘the bees recognise his sovereignty’, which isn’t at all bad for four syllables; another more mundane and succinct translation is ‘miracle’.) The king was none too pleased at this prophecy, and eventually tried to poison his younger brother, but instead of killing him he cast him into a deep sleep that endured for three days. While sleeping, Lalibela was transported to heaven by an angel and shown a city of rock-hewn churches, which he was ordered to replicate. Rather neatly, his elder brother had a simultaneous vision in which Christ instructed him to abdicate in favour of Lalibela.
Another version of the legend is that Lalibela went into exile in Jerusalem, and was inspired by a vision to create a ‘new’ Jerusalem of rock at Roha. As soon as he was crowned, Lalibela set about gathering the world’s greatest craftsmen and artisans in order to carve the churches. Legend has it that at least one of the churches was built in a day with the help of angels – or, as Graham Hancock suggests in The Sign and the Seal (and not a great deal more plausibly), with the assistance of Freemasons! In fact, the excavation of the churches is something of a mystery – some sources estimate that in the order of 40,000 people would have been required to carve them – so it’s not surprising that their origin has been clouded in legend. If anywhere I have visited would make me start contemplating supernatural intervention – or, for that matter, the timely arrival of a bunch of bearded Grailseekers – it would have to be Lalibela.
Even before you visit the churches, Lalibela is a strikingly singular town. The setting alone is glorious. Perched at an altitude of 2,630m, among wild craggy mountains and vast rocky escarpments, there is a stark cathedral-like grandeur to Lalibela that recalls the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa and Lesotho. The houses of Lalibela are of a design unlike anywhere else in Ethiopia, two-storey circular stone constructs that huddle in an amorphous mass over the steep slopes on which the town is built. But people visit Lalibela for the churches. And, no matter if you have visited other rock-hewn churches in Ethiopia, nothing will prepare you for these.
The Lalibela churches are big – several are in excess of 10 metres high – and, because they are carved below ground level, they are ringed by trenches and courtyards, the sides of which are cut into with stone graves and hermit cells, and connected to each other by a tangled maze of tunnels and passages. In size and scope, the church complex feels like a subterranean village. Yet each individual church is unique in shape and size, precisely carved and minutely decorated. Lalibela is, in a word, awesome.
When the Portuguese priest Francisco Alvarez was taken to Lalibela in 1521, he doubted that his compatriots would believe what he had seen. In his narrative Prester John of the Indies he wrote: ‘It wearied me to write more of these works, because it seemed to me that they will accuse me of untruth … there is much more than I have already written, and I have left it that they may not tax me with it being falsehood.’
Were it virtually anywhere but in Ethiopia, Lalibela would rightly be celebrated as one of the wonders of the world, as readily identified with Ethiopia as are the pyramids or the Sphinx with Egypt. As it is, Lalibela is barely known outside Ethiopia, and Ethiopia itself is associated first and foremost with desert and drought – not a little ironic, when you consider that the fertile Nile Basin, on which Egypt depends, receives 90% of its water from the Ethiopian Highlands. Lalibela’s obscurity is shameful but for those who visit the town it is part of the charm.
These churches are not primarily tourist attractions, being prodded and poked away from their original context, nor are they the crumbling monuments of a dead civilisation. What they are, and what they have been for at least 800 years, is an active Christian shrine, the spiritual centre of a town’s religious life. It is naive, and perhaps a bit patronising, to think in terms of unchanging cultures. Nevertheless, if you wander between the churches in the thin light of morning, when white-robed hermits emerge Bible-in-hand from their cells to bask on the rocks, and the chill highland air is warmed by Eucharistic drumbeats and gentle swaying chants, you can’t help but feel that you are witnessing a scene that is fundamentally little different fromthe one that has been enacted here every morning for century upon century.
The joy of Lalibela, the thing that makes this curiously medieval town so special, is that it is not just the rock-hewn churches that have survived into the modern era, but also something more organic. The churches breathe.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue
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All information for the original article was taken from Bradt's Ethiopia by Philip Briggs. The fully revised 8th edition was published in October 2018. For more information CLICK HERE or visit www.bradtguides.com
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