This morning I had an 0830 flight to catch from Gondar to Lalibela. I scheduled the hotel shuttle to pick me up at 0700 the night before, and had an early buffet breakfast at the Taye Belay Hotel around 0630. As suspected the hotel shuttle was not there at 0700 (Ethiopian time, after all) – after a few calls to the driver and some urging on my park to the receptionist, the van eventually arrived at 0730. It didn’t matter anyways because the flight was delayed by 30 minutes. This seems to be the norm on Ethiopian Airlines domestic flights.
The flight arrived around 1000 in Lalibela, and the Panoramic View Hotel, where I’d be staying two nights, had a shuttle transfer and guide arranged for me at the airport. I had previously arranged this with the owner, Amdemariam, via email (he was very prompt, courteous, and informative in his emails). You can also read my TripAdvisor review of the hotel, here.
On the drive to the airport we made a few stops for me to take some pictures of the rolling hills and countryside as we climbed the (not insignificant) mountain to the small town of Lalibela. My guide, Kassa, explained that the town had grown from a few hundred residents several years ago to around 1,000 residents today living in the city center, supported mainly on tourism. The rest of the residents (~5,000) live in small villages dotting the countryside and survived on subsistence farming. Here is the countryside on the drive up from the airport (in the valley) to the town (in the mountain).
I had also tried to arrange a Lalibela guide through my Gondar guide (Antoni) – this fellow Abebe. We were texting back and forth and he said he’d meet me at the hotel and we’d discuss a program. Mainly I wanted to get a second price point from what Amdemariam had also provided via email a few days prior. It ended up that Abebe wasn’t actually a guide, but a middleman, so the price with him was much higher – therefore it was a no brainer to continue to use the services provided through the hotel and Kassa.
The hotel was located a little ways outside of the town center (however, still quite walkable), perched on the edge of a cliff for a spectacular view. I reached the hotel at 1030 and they kindly gave me a room even though it was very early still. I collected my luggage and transferred them to the room, and then sat down with Amdemariam and Kassa to discuss the program for the next two days.
We negotiated the price and the items in the package and eventually settled on $170 for a morning and afternoon tour of the rock-hewn churches in town (the Northern and Southern groupings) (not including the outrageous $50 entry-fee imposed by the Orthodox Church), plus a morning outing the next day to either Yemrehanna Kristos or Asheton Maryam Monastery (I’d decide later), with entry fee for the second day program included in the price ($25). Both required about an hour drive to get to but were different in what they offered. I wanted to keep the afternoon on my second day free so that I could walk around town and do some shopping.
Around 1100 Kassa and I set off to the Northern group churches before they closed from 1200-1400, and then the plan was to visit the Southern/Eastern grouping in the afternoon. We got to the entrance after a 20 minute walk from the hotel and I paied the $50 admission fee, which was good for 4 days across all 11 churches in town. Note: there are lots of ups and downs in this town so wear good walking shoes (mainly cobblestone streets) and be prepared to be winded even if you’re in good shape due to the high altitude. On our walk we mainly discussed the high entry price imposed by the church, and how this was hurting local tour guides since often tourists now opted to forego the guide service to offset the steep admission fee. Kassa explained that even though the members of the Ethiopian Tour Guide’s association opposed the fee hike (which just recently happened in 2013), the leadership rolled over and refused to fight the Church. We also discussed how the proceeds from the increase were not being visibly put to use by the Church, and the Church similarly refused to justify how the new funds would be used.
I also had the good fortune to run in to a woman from Morocco visiting Lalibela and we chatted for a while during the fee processing – we would later meet up for lunch.
Kassa brought me down to the first group of churches, which was a hike in itself. It was amazing to see elderly people hiking down to visit these churches with staffs and canes, braving the steep and dangerous terrain just for the chance to worship at these special churches and complete their pilgrimage.
King Lalibela, from the Zagwe Dynasty, built the churches in the 12th/13th century in the town previously known as Roha – only later was the name changed to honor the King, who’s name literally means “bees obey him.” It is rumored that when King Lalibela was born, he was surrounded by a swarm of bees (but not harmed), which is why his mother chose this name for him. The King arranged the churches and town to replicate/depict places in the Holy Land of Jurasalem as well as biblical stories – for example, there is a river that runs through town called the Yordannos (Jordan). After Muslims captured Jerusalem in the 12th century, King Lalibela was determined to make Lalibela (Roha) the Jerusalem of Ethiopia, and save Ethiopians the perilous and often deadly pilgrimage to the true Holy Land.
Most impressive is the architecture of the churches, since they were carved from living rock from the top town. Here are churches in town (from Wikipedia):
The Northern Group:
- Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), home to the Lalibela Cross and believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, probably a copy of St Mary of Zion in Aksum.
- Biete Maryam (House of Miriam/House of Mary), possibly the oldest of the churches, and a replicas of the Tombs of Adam and Christ.
- Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael), known for its arts and said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela)
- Biete Maskal (House of the Cross)
- Biete Denagel (House of Virgins)
The Western Group:
- Biete Giyorgis (Church of Saint George), said to be the most finely executed and best preserved church.
The Southern/Eastern Group:
- Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), possibly the former royal chapel
- Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercoreos/House of St. Mark), which may be a former prison
- Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos)
- Biete Gabriel-Rufael (House of the angels Gabriel, and Raphael)possibly a former royal palace, linked to a holy bakery.
- Biete Lehem (Bethlehem Hebrew: בֵּית לֶחֶם, House of Holy Bread).
We visited first 5 of the 6 Northern churches before lunch.
From 1200-1400 we walked through the market, which had a special Christmas market since Christmas Day in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was the day before (Jan 7). As such we also got to observe and take pictures of many people worshiping .
Here are some interesting pictures from the market.
Kassa explained the history of each church and the artifacts and paintings as we walked inside each one (everything was symbolic and representative of the Bible and the Holy Land). Since it’s required to remove your shoes upon entry (God instructed Moses to remove his shoes while he stood on Mount Sinai because it was Holy Ground – remember, the Ethiopian Orthodox church takes the bible literally), I recommend wearing shoes that are both rugged (good soles) and easy to remove. My heavy-duty hiking boots were quite a pain taking on and off.
During my lunch, I ended up meeting the Moroccan woman, Salma, again at the Seven Olives Hotel and ordered the Fasting Platter (all vegetarian) which came on a heaping plates of injera and assortment of other breads. Salma is quite interesting – she has a PhD in physics and currently works in the UK at Accenture, a large consulting firm. She’s also traveling with a girlfriend (also a physics PhD) and we agreed to meet for dinner in the evening.
At 1400 I re-met Kassa and we discussed the afternoon program again. He had noticed that I was more interesting taking photographs than learning about the particulars of the churches and the artwork. I explained my photography and blogging projects, and, based on that, he revised our program for the afternoon. Instead of visiting the Southern group of churches, we decided to check out the one remaining church in the Northern group that we hadn’t already visited (St. George church – Biete Giyorgis), and then observe and take pictures of a mass that was began at 1500.
Here’s me at the St. George church, which was built in the shape of a cross (Meskel).
We finished up around 1600, and the plan was to go back to the Southern group on my own the following afternoon. As I walked back to the hotel, I met a few people from town.
At the hotel I showered and changed, and received a call from Salma, who invited me to dinner at Ben Abeba. I headed over there around 1800, and met a young boy, Tedy, who showed me the way to the restaurant since I got a little lost.
When I got to the restaurant, I was astounded by its magnificent architecture. It was a cross between Star Wars and quaint countryside. It was iconic to say the least, and also could have been something out of the Jetsons. I caught a glimpse of a fantastic sunset as well. You can check out my full review of the restaurant, Ben Abeba, here, on TripAdvisor.
I met Salma and her friend, Connie.
I left around 2000 and met Tedy at the entrance of Ben Abeba. He asked me if I wanted to see a local Tejbet (Torpedo) and said OK. It was pretty amazing on the inside, and a strolling musician roamed the floor singing and telling jokes, and goading people to do the traditional shoulder dance (luckily I avoided doing it this time).
We left around 2100 and I headed back to the hotel. Tedy invited me for a coffee ceremony that he would prepare the following day in his village.
Next up in the morning will be a visit to the monastery of Ashetan Maryam – Kassa had suggested I would like this better than Yimrehane Kristos since I enjoy more landscape and countryside, and pictures of day to day life rather than churches and old stuff. So far he had not led me astray.