This past weekend featured our first in-country trip outside Addis. There’s a long list of things we hope to see here in Ethiopia, in terms of historical and natural significance. Our just over 24-hour getaway to Lalibela offered both.
The town of Lalibela took its name from Emperor Gebre Mesquel Lalibela, who ruled in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. The future ruler of Ethiopia’s legend started with a birth that brought out a swarm of bees (Lalibela’s name literally means “the bees recognize his sovereignty”). The young Lalibela spent time in Jerusalem, which obviously had a deep effect upon him. So much so that when that Jerusalem fell to Muslim rule, Lalibela built his own version in the northern mountains of Ethiopia. Complete with naming the local river Jordan and recreating Biblical scenes on the dozen-ish churches in the mountain town formerly known as Roha that is now Lalibela.
The “cut out of friggin’ rock” architecture of the churches clustered in Lalibela draw Ethiopian Orthodox Christian pilgrims and tourists alike. The tourists were vastly outnumbered by the devout during our visit. We were met at the Lalibela Airport by a birder/naturalist guide who graduated from Addis Ababa University. The guides were arranged by our hotel, Sora Lodge, which was a more than decent place that came highly recommended. Our subsequent guide for the churches was a former “deacon”…I assumed not a Wake Forest grad…who saw holy men at every turn who greeted him like a favorite ringer from a bowling league who just walked into the alley.
In terms of the lowlights, the entry fee for Lalibela’s churches is a hefty $50/person. The process of getting the voucher from the Diocese in charge felt like a lamely gender-biased job interview (ladies, don’t bother applying). They try to shine up that turd by saying that you have five whole days to explore Lalibela’s churches. We managed to buzz through the three different clusters in less than a day. A quick internet search offered plenty of complaints over these rather recent increases in that price. Six years ago the price was $10/person (which was still a chafe for many). Not surprisingly, the church leadership doesn’t share any accounting with the Ethiopian government and everyone acts like its no big whoop. Bottom line - tourists are covering the cost of operation for those actually visiting for spiritually significant reasons. Make your own calculation. I’m actually OK with the scam. Especially with how unbothered everyone seemed by our respectful but nonetheless intrusive presence.
We arrived on Saturday afternoon and focused upon the first cluster of churches. We only had 90 minutes before closing. Everything was damp and dank. I think we were feeling a bit underwhelmed and unsure of how it might all come together the following morning. Follow that up with a collective ordering miscalculation back at Sora Lodge that was more akin to what was served on the “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” special than an actual meal. By the time we hit the hay, our flags were hanging low.
Thankfully, Sunday morning was a revelation. We plunged into the crowd back inside the first church we’d seen on Saturday. They were welcoming or at least tolerant of our presence. It was a pretty informal affair. There were healing rubs offered for all the afflicted from their treasured Lalibela Cross (stolen in 1996 and then recovered in 1998). Holy water flowed and a large jam band-esque circle worked through cacophonous chant that lasted throughout our interior spin. It would be hard to imagine a more out of place looking trio of foreigners than us. That $50/person, however, buys a sizable amount of understanding.
The next stop was the most famous and best preserved church in Lalibela - the Church of Saint George. There were scenes of note at every turn. Ask each of us and I’m certain the list of resilient images will vary widely. Our favorite stretch, however, was a 55-meter long tunnel with absolutely no natural or artificial light that required a crouching walk with one hand grappling the wall throughout. Along the way, we got some face time and what seemed to be blessings from the various holy folks (see our mirthless pic below.,..he actually wasn’t that dour in person…well, that’s what I’m telling people). The pics below do work in a chronological order for what we saw. I hope this fills some of the sizable blanks in my rundown.
By the time we were back in our apartment, only 30 hours had transpired. It was a spendy little trip. I think we all will pass on a return trip to Lalibela. Yet our getaway got the juices flowing for more excursions from our temporary home base in Addis. Which will prove to be worth every penny. Ciao.