Lalibela is arguably the one place in Ethiopia that no tourist should omit from their itinerary. A singular town, perched at an altitude of 2,630m, the striking etting alone is glorious, offering grandstand views to wild craggy peaks and vast rocky escarpments whose stark grandeur recalls the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa.
The traditional houses of Lalibela are also of a design unlike anywhere else in Ethiopia, two-story circular stone constructs that huddle on the steep slopes on which the town is built. But the small town’s centerpiece, often cited as an unofficial eighth wonder of the world, is a stunning cluster of 13 medieval rock-hewn churches and chapels that today functions as a kind of living shrine to King Lalibela, the saint accredited with excavating them in the 12th century.
Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, the meticulously sculpted churches of Lalibela are the undisputed pinnacle of an architectural tradition dating back to Axumite times.
The churches here are big – several are in excess of 10m 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 at Lalibela feels like a subterranean village. Yet each individual church is unique in shape and size, precisely carved and minutely decorated. Furthermore, while Lalibela has become a lot more touristy than it was a few years back, its rock-hewn churches are not primarily tourist attractions, being prodded and poked away from their original context, nor are they the crumbling monuments of a dead civilization.
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. 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, and you can’t help but feel that you are witnessing a scene that is fundamentally little different from the 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 alive and organic.
HISTORY When it comes to the early history of Lalibela, little is known for certain. Originally called Adefa (or Arafa), it may have been established as early as the 7th or 8th century AD, probably as the capital of one of the local fiefdoms that rose to prominence when the Axumite Empire disintegrated.
In the mid 12th century, a time of great religious conflict in the Mediterranean, Adefa became the coronation site and capital of the upstart Zagwe dynasty. Under the Zagwe, the town was evidently renamed Roha, in tribute to the Mesopotamian city of al-Ruha (Edessa), whose King Agbar V legendarily become an early Christian convert after being cured of leprosy by Jesus, and which had more recently housed a short-lived Crusader state that fell to a bloody Islamic siege in 1144. The most venerated ruler associated with Adefa/Roha is Gebre Meskel Lalibela, the fifth Zagwe emperor, who most likely came to power in the early 1180s and reigned for 40 years, during which time he was responsible for the excavation of the complex of rock-hewn churches for which the town is famed.
GETTING THERE AND AWAY
During the 1950s, Lalibela was legendarily inaccessible. There was no proper road to the village, which typically received about five parties of foreign visitors annually, following a four-day mule-back excursion from Dessie. Even as recently as the mid-1990s, air and road access to Lalibela was strictly restricted to the dry season. Today, Lalibela is still not connected to any other town by a completed asphalt road, but flights do now run throughout the year, while the construction of good all-weather gravel roads south to Gashena and north to Sekota allows a road approach from any of several directions.
Daily flights connect Lalibela to Addis Ababa, Gondar, Bahir Dar and Axum. The airport lies about 25km from the town center along a surfaced 5km side road branching west from the main road to Gashena. All flights are met by most private operators. The Ethiopian Airlines office is situated on the main square close to the Blue Lal Hotel.
Article By: Kaleab Ayenew