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The smallest of the three former capitals that form the nucleus of Ethiopia’s historic circuit, LALIBELA is the site of Ethiopia’s one inarguable must-see attraction: the labyrinthine complex of thirteen medieval rock-hewn churches and chapels associated with Emperor Lalibela. Lalibela’s churches were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, and indisputably represent the apex of an Ethiopian temple-excavating tradition that might well predate the arrival of Christianity in the fourth century AD. Yet for all their architectural finesse, perhaps the most remarkable thing about these churches is that they are not primarily museum pieces or archeological sites, but living, breathing places of worship that have remained in active use since their excavation more than eight hundred years ago.
Given its historical pedigree, Lalibela town itself is more modest than might be expected, with a population estimated at 15,000, an aura of highland rusticity that’s gradually being eroded by tourism, and a sprawling shape moulded by the same slopes and outcrops into which its churches are carved. It also has a very isolated location, set at a lofty altitude of 2630m among craggy hills overlooked by Mount Abune Yoseph.
There are several land routes to Lalibela, but unless you have your own vehicle, none is entirely straightforward. Furthermore, no public transport connects Lalibela to the other main stops along the northern historic circuit (Bahir Dar, Gondar, Aksum and Mekele), and there is also a paucity of direct transport from Addis Ababa. As a result, unless you opt to fly, your choice of route to Lalibela and back will be an important consideration in the overall structure of your Ethiopian itinerary.
The main springboard for Lalibela is Gashena, a strategic small town 65km to the south along a fair dirt road scheduled to be fully asphalted by 2016. Gashena lies at the junction with the “China Road”, a recently asphalted strip that connects Werota (185km to the west) and Weldiya (110km to the east).
Coming via the China Road from the east, a few direct buses connect Weldiya and Lalibela daily, but you may still need to change vehicles at Gashena. Coming from Bahir Dar or Gondar, you need to catch a bus along the China Road towards Weldiya, then hop off at Gashena to change vehicles. Be warned that however you get to Gashena, transport to Lalibela tends to peter out after 3pm, which may enforce late arrivals to overnight at one of the uniformly dismal local hotels around the junction.
Approaching from Addis Ababa, the direct minibuses that once ran to Lalibela (a 24hr ride) ceased operating in 2014 due to government restrictions. Should the service resume, it invariably entails an overnight stop, often in the middle of nowhere, so it makes greater sense to take a bus as far as Dessie or Weldiya, overnight there, then head onwards to Lalibela the next day.
Coming from Tigrai, most people follow the main road south from Mekele to Weldiya, then continue to Lalibela via Gashena. An underutilized alternative is a partially paved back route connecting Adwa (22km from Aksum) to Lalibela via Abi Aday, Sekota and Bilbilla.
It’s hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the history of Lalibela and its churches. Oral tradition suggests that the town, originally known as Debre (Mount) Roha, was founded during or before the eleventh century as the capital of the Zagwe dynasty, but what is beyond question is that its most celebrated ruler was Emperor Gebre Meskel Lalibela, after whom the site was renamed centuries later. According to legend, Lalibela was earmarked for great things as a child, when a holy swarm of bees settled on his body (his name reputedly derives from an archaic phrase meaning “the bees recognize his sovereignty”). Lalibela became emperor around 1180, following a protracted secession struggle, and soon after received a divine vision instructing him to re-create Jerusalem in stone at Debre Roha. Tradition has it that he fulfilled this vision personally, by excavating all of the town’s thirteen rock-hewn churches (along with several other similar edifices scattered around the rest of Ethiopia) during his forty-year reign, often with the assistance of angels.
In truth, the stylistic variation on display at Lalibela’s churches, not to mention the intensive labour required to chisel them out of solid rock, makes it unlikely the excavation could take place within the space of a few decades. Two different methods were used for excavation. Subterranean monoliths such as Bet Giyorgis and Medhane Alem were created by cutting a deep moat-like trench downward into the rock, leaving behind a freestanding block of rock into which the actual church would be chiselled – a method of excavation unique to Ethiopia. Other churches were carved into a vertical rock face, often exploiting existing caves or fissures.
Thus a more probable scenario is that the churches were excavated over several centuries, and that some started life as secular forts or palaces but were converted at a later date. What does seem likely, however, is that Emperor Lalibela was responsible for the unification of the complex as a whole, and also for excavating the most recent and refined churches. Whatever the truth, the churches of Lalibela were unquestionably in place by the late fifteenth century, when the Portuguese explorer Pêro da Covilhã became the first outsider to visit the site.
Lying at the heart of the small town, Lalibela’s church complex comprises three principal sites: the northwest cluster of seven churches and chapels; a further five churches making up the southeast cluster; and the stand-alone Bet Giyorgis, to the west of them both. It’s a compact site, with none of the churches much more than 500m (as the crow flies) from any other, and all lying within 300m of the main road, though distances can seem longer on the winding, sloping footpaths that connect the clusters. Though it’s possible to see all thirteen churches and chapels in the course of one morning or afternoon, most visitors prefer to stretch their sightseeing over a full day or even two.
All visitors must first report to the ticket office at the main entrance, situated outside the northwest cluster on the main road. Official guides, available at the ticket office, can help you navigate the rather labyrinthine complex and get to grips with the history and legends associated with the churches, though individual travellers tend to find the cost off-putting and often make their own way around.
The most iconic of the churches in Lalibela is Bet Giyorgis, a 15m-high monolith carved in the shape of a symmetrical cross. Legend has it that this was the last church to be excavated in Lalibela, and that its namesake St George was so delighted with the result that in his enthusiasm he rode his horse right over the wall into the entrance tunnel, indenting it with hoof prints that can still be seen there today. Viewed from above, this moss-covered cruciform, nestled into its deep, hand-carved courtyard with the hills around Lalibela providing a sensational backdrop, is an absolutely spectacular sight. The interior, by contrast, is so unexpectedly small and cramped you’ll most likely do a double take when you come back out.
The northwest cluster is the more architecturally cohesive of the two groups, and was most likely conceived as a whole, quite possibly by Emperor Lalibela. Coming from the ticket office, the first church you reach is Bet Medhane Alem, which stands almost 12m high and has a ground area of 800 square metres, making it the world’s largest rock-hewn monolith. The exterior is supported by thirty-odd square rock-hewn columns, giving it a classical appearance that has led some scholars to suggest it is a replica of the original fourth century church (on the site of the Maryam Tsion) at Aksum, while the airy cathedral-like interior has a devout, very tranquil atmosphere. An arched passage through the rock wall leads from here to a large subterranean courtyard dominated by Bet Maryam, which is particularly notable for its beautifully carved interior and densely painted ceiling. In the same courtyard is the smaller Bet Golgotha, the one church in Lalibela that women are prohibited from entering. King Lalibela is said to be buried in Bet Golgotha’s Selassie Chapel, the holiest place in Lalibela and off limits to all visitors.
The more disparate southeast cluster is regarded by experts to be closer in architectural style to the ancient temples and churches of the Aksumite Empire. Several of its churches started life as secular excavations centuries before Lalibela’s time. The showstopper in this cluster is the imposing, fortress-like Bet Gebriel-Rufael, which is reached via a tall rock passageway and a wooden footbridge across a deep dry moat, and might well have been originally carved as part of a palatial complex for Aksumite royalty. It’s in rather better repair than the Bet Abba Libanos, a cave church which according to legend was built overnight by Meskel Kebre, the wife of Lalibela, with the help of angelic assistants. The most precisely worked church of the cluster – indeed the whole of Lalibela – is the monolithic Bet Amanuel, which has an exterior that mimics the classical Aksumite layered wood-and-stone style, also typified by the out-of-town Yemrehanna Kristos.