Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Rock Churches of Lalibela

To tell the truth, we knew very little about Ethiopia, and even less about Lalibela, until a few different friends returned from their own Ethiopian adventures. Everyone raved about the country and especially recommended visiting the rock-hewn churches.

Lalibela is home to eleven churches that were all carved out of rock between 800 and 900 years ago. The churches were commissioned by King Lalibela and chiseled from stone by thousands of men and, according to legend, angels that assisted them day and night. The area is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and rightly so. The churches are truly remarkable on a historical, cultural and religious level, and breathtaking in real life.

Armed with this small amount of knowledge and a much more knowledgeable guide, and together with our friend Justin and another Aussie couple, we set out from Lalibela Lodge on Sunday morning, ready to explore these historical buildings.
 We marveled at the design and execution of each church. Without any help from modern technology, the ancient community of Lalibela carved out straight walls, symmetrical detailing and perfect archways. 

Our guide pointed out different crosses and symbols, sharing the historical significance and meaning behind each and providing us a simple history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. What we found most remarkable was that even today, hundreds and hundreds of years later, the churches are home to living breathing congregations who worship there each Sunday.

We slipped off our shoes and joined the crowds entering the church. The rock stairs were polished smooth by the footsteps of millions who have entered over the years and we took a moment as our senses adjusted to the darkness, the soft scent of incense and the sound of the priests slowing shaking sistrums.

Once inside, we were mesmorised by the crowds wrapped in white and the melodical rise and fall of men's voices. Young and old, they sang slowly together, picking up speed to a cresendo, then softly slowing down again.

In one corner, a priest was blessing individuals, rubbing a solid gold cross across their head and body. In another corner, we watched the old men bend in prayer or pour over their precious Bibles. Though we were clearly foreigners, very few took notice of us. It was incredible to get such an authentic insight into the religion and culture of the people of Lalibela.
As the morning church crowd slowly meandered out of the area, we continued exploring the rest of the churches. Pilgrims from out of town were reading scriptures or kissing the cold stone walls and our guide pointed out ancient murals of various Bible scenes and paintings of St George slaying the dragon. We heard stories of secret tunnels joining the eleven churches and rumours of dishonest priests using the tunnels to steal precious church relics.

Honestly, our words and photos do not do the place justice, so if you ever get the chance, be sure to visit Lalibela. It's a big call, but we're pretty sure it's the most incredible place we've ever explored.


Funnily enough, it was in Lalibela when things began to unravel for us. Our mate Justin sprained his ankle in one particularly dark church, and a couple of hours later I was knocked out with a gastro bug and missed the rest of the church tour. Like dominoes we fell - Will got food poisioning on Christmas eve, and then Justin got hit with a cold. Ethiopia kinda beat us up, but we couldn't help falling for this beautiful country anyway! More photos and stories to follow...

1 comment:

  1. Wow those are such amazing photos mate, even though pictures could never do justice to the place then, I think your pictures do alot a better than mine