Lalibela - time stands still at the rock hewn churches in Ethiopia
I was introduced to Ethiopia while flying to South Africa. It was an adventure as I flew Ethiopian Airlines for the first time. I was told that if the connecting flight takes off, before I reach Addis Ababa, I would be offered a stay in the capital with sight seeing thrown in, all for free. I became a fan of Ethiopian Airlines - the aircrafts are new, offer great connections and have wonderful soft-spoken crew.
When I flew to South Africa for the second time - again on Ethiopian - curiosity creeped in. The meal on the connecting flight to Johannesburg was ethnic – offering injera, the spicy chicken wot, veggies, lentil wot all to be washed down with the famous Ethiopian coffee. Ethiopia seemed like a country waiting to be explored.
A little bit of browsing threw up the cross-shaped church at Lalibela that was built out of one massive mountain called the St. George's church. It was like a magnet.
I visited Lalibela soon! It was nothing short of a miracle to be invited to see the country.
Lalibela – the new Jerusalem
About an hour’s flight from the capital, Lalibela is a quiet town situated 1200 metres above sea level, with a stark landscape that has it’s own charm. It was a beautiful drive from the airport to the churches. I purchased some Lalibela crosses from some humble shepherd’s wives. Later our vehicle climbed up the winding roads, we came across a populated village and our guide informed us that these were families who have been relocated from the church premises. Lalibela was named after the king who ruled in the 12th century and he was responsible for building the churches.
My visit to the churches
It is difficult to even imagine the sheer magnitude of the churches as we enter the UNESCO world heritage site. The complex is protected under a mammoth metal canopy, a few metres away, the panorama unfolds. A gigantic structure is visible, below the hill!
Eager to explore, I walk down the rough steps watching my feet as it’s tricky and just look up at the church that stands inside the caved in mountain. Huge pillars hold up the roof and small windows were cut into the thick walls of stone to let in light. I walk around the structure and ss our guide Asefa explained the long history associated with orthodox Christianity in Lalibela, we listened and I asked him if we could enter the church. Yes, we can but we have to remove our footwear, hats or caps and make sure that we are decently dressed.
Dark, a bit musty it seemed like time had come to a standstill. We remove our shoes to enter the holy space; it’s dark, quiet and musty. Huge carpets are strewn over the floors and long curtains adorn the altar. A priest in white robes bows his head down in prayer. We are lucky as our guide tells us that he will bless us with the Lalibela Cross if we like, and we can photograph him too. The cross is quite big, elaborately decorated, with a circular design. It seems that the circular style of the cross was a common design during the 13 th Century and the name stuck as "Lalibela crosses".
I learn that Lalibela was built to resemble New Jerusalem for the benefit of Africans who couldn’t travel to faraway Israel in the 10th century, not that they didn’t try, they died while crossing the desert and the Muslim invaders under the Aksum empire stopped them from visiting the Holy Land.
The massive soft pink pillars that have turned brown over the centuries, crumbled but were re-created as they crumbled during the vagaries of nature. The large stone pieces stand next to the church, mute spectators of tourists.
Without any engineering knowledge, the craftsmen and ‘builders’ made sure the site was a sloping one so that the rain water would flow into a channel. King Lalibela built these churches under the ground level to protect them from the crusaders, who were on a rampage to destroy catholic churches all over Europe and Africa.
Today the locals living in the area have been relocated to shanties a few kilometres from the protected area. They used to live in very unique yet picturesque round houses with a thatched roof built with local red stone called Lasta Tukuls, the houses had an internal staircase.
Till date Sunday services are held inside the churches. As we walk out, we walk through trenches, moats, courtyards, all connected to each other by a maze of tunnels, making it seem like a walk back into centuries. The complex is vast and there are a couple of smaller churches and a good 500 metre walk takes visitors to the most famous and most photographed church of St. George. It has a cross-shaped roof that is visible at the road level and one needs to walk down at least 20 feet to access the church.
Totally amazed, I am dazed at the beauty of the churches and how they have stood the test of time over centuries. We walk back to our vehicle, visiting a tiny stall that sells rough clay reproductions of the St. George’s church and some cute clay hens that are handmade.
As we leave Lalibela the next morning, I feel totally blessed at having visited this sacred site.