Not many people know about Lalibela, Ethiopia’s national treasure and one of the world’s most interesting historical sites. This is probably due to the fact that the country isn’t high on many people’s agenda of places to see. Despite this, I was a bit worried that the city and its claim to fame would be teeming with tourists, kitschy, overpriced souvenirs and locals attempting to scam me at every turn. What I got was one of the calmer, more laid-back and more interesting corners of the world.
That may have had something to do with the time of year I visited. I continue to read accounts from other travelers of excessive visitor numbers and one who even claimed that the city had the highest concentration of beggars in the country. Again, maybe I was there at a different time of year. Maybe I just didn’t stay long enough to experience these things. Or maybe those other travelers haven’t really seen excessive tourism (Angkor Wat? Machu Piccu? Times Square?) or really extreme levels of begging (I found Hawassa, south of the capital, to be much worse).
In short, Lalibela is worth a visit, at least in May. The weather was decent (a bit of rain but not overwhelmingly so) and the crowds were practically non-existent. I stayed in a great little hotel with outstanding service and an even better view of the mountains, teamed up with a couple of Koreans on my ride in from the airport to find a local guide at a great price, had delicious authentic Ethiopian food and didn’t get hassled for money or scammed by a single person. Below are some pictures and a brief history of the place.
Bearing the same name as the town that hosts the site, Lalibela is a collection of eleven monolithic churches carved deep into solid volcanic rock. While no one is certain when they were built, many experts date their origin back to King Lalibela in the 12th and 13th centuries, when Muslim conquests prevented Christians from making pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They are therefore believed to be modeled after Jerusalem and are an important site of pilgrimage for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians to this day.
Each church bears a vastly different shape and size. The first one on the agenda was Bet Medhane Alem, believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world.
As we made our way from church to church, we noticed that most were occupied by priests, who even outnumbered the visitors. They didn’t seem to mind us walking around exploring. In one church our guide has us play the drums, which were far heavier than they look.
On our way between churches we came across a bell made entirely of stone. I gave it a ding and it sounded just like a normal bell.
We then descended upon the most recognized of Lalibela’s eleven churches, Bet Giyorgis, or Church of St. George. With its cross shape, it’s considered one of the best built and well-preserved of all the churches. After getting a glimpse from the top, we hiked down the roughly 30-foot drop through slippery trench-like pathways.
Bet Gabriel-Ruphael was my favorite and looked like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. By the time we got to this church in the late afternoon, we were the only visitors.
After visiting Bet Gabriel-Ruphael our guide took us to this tunnel, appropriately dubbed the Tunnel of Hell. Legend has it, if you manage to pass through the quarter kilometer of pitch black tunnel (without cheating with a flashlight, of course!) and come out the other side, you’ve made your way out of hell. I’m glad to say I MADE IT! Take that, hell! I was a bit worried I’d hit my head, though, seeing as how at 5’11” I was taller than my new Korean friends and our guide. So in effect, I was the canary in the coal mine.
This was our final church before heading back to the center of town.
The town of Lalibela was just as much of a treat for me. It had nowhere near the amount of litter strewn about and children giggled when we passed by. Whereas the streets of Hawassa were flooded with children begging foreigners for money because parents often deem it more lucrative than putting them in school, I was happy to learn from our guide that kids in Lalibela go to school more often than not because those with an education can work in tourism, which is seen as a way out of poverty. This girl followed us home, occasionally practicing her English on me. She followed alongside me for a good 20 minutes, just grinning away, and was ecstatic when I leaned down to take a picture.
The rest of the day was spent wandering around town, observing the locals as they went about their daily chores. We also walked down to a giant market, held daily. I noticed bits of slaughtered goat (hooves, heads, etc.) lying on the ground every few steps.
I can easily say that Lalibela was my favorite part of Ethiopia. If you go, be aware that the entrance fee to the churches was recently increased to a rather expensive USD 50, but the ticket can be used for several days. I highly recommend hiring a guide to show you around and give you the history. Wear good shoes, as you’ll be doing a lot of walking and it can get dangerously slippery when it rains. And as always, feel free to get in touch with me if you’d like more tips and and recommendations.