Laliebla is a place like no other in Africa. It is home to some of the most awe inspiring buildings on the continent: 900-year old churches carved from solid rock, set amidst glorious mountainous scenery. It is a place where myth and reality merge together almost completely. Historical fact is, at times, impossible to extract from a maze of legends and half remembered truths. In a place as truly extraordinary as this, you can forgive the exaggeration and myth-spinning, because the sight of Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches is enough to disorient the senses.
Local legend states that King Lalibela, in a coma after being poisoned by his brother, was instructed by God to build the New Jerusalem in Ethiopia. So much for WIlliam Blake’s claim that the New Jerusalem would be built in England’s ‘green and pleasant land’. The Ethiopians got there centuries before Blake penned his poem, and there isn’t a ‘dark satanic mill’ anywhere to be seen.
Good to his word, King Lalibela constructed a town of churches like no other, including naming things after their counterparts in the actual Jerusalem. To achieve this monumental feat of engineering and construction, King Lalibela is supposed to have enlisted the help of a legion of angels who, apparently overnight, built the churches. I asked our guide whether people believed this to be the literal truth, and was met with the icy response that in Lalibela people believed this story absolutely.
Modern researchers believe that the churches were constructed in the 12th or 13th Centuries, which does at least coincide with King Lalibela’s reign. Dismissing the angels altogether, this research estimates that a workforce of some 40,000 people would have been needed to build the churches. A project not unlike those of the much more famous Egyptian rulers to the north, and as equally monumental.
In truth, it isn’t really accurate to describe the churches as being built. They are carved out of solid rock into functional buildings; they are literally monolithic. It is an amazing place that will test your perceptions in more ways than you might imagine. Just one look at the church of St.George, carved literally down through the rock, will boggle the mind with the ingenuity and technical skill of the Medieval civilisation which constructed it.
Lalibela is, first and foremost, a spiritual town and a centre for one of the oldest forms of Christianity on the planet. People come here on pilgrimage from all over Ethiopia (joined by a fair few international pilgrims these days, many from the large Ethiopian diaspora), often walking for days to reach the town which sits in the mountains of northern Ethiopia.
Our timing wasn’t great, dictated as it was by flight schedules. It would have been nice to have been in Lalibela on a Sunday, to witness the hundreds of worshipers who arrive throughout Saturday night to attend services. Otherwise the town is quite quiet. Although during festivals – such as Easter – tens of thousands of pilgrims descend on the town, creating one of the most extraordinary sights in Ethiopia. White robed pilgrims celebrate throughout the night, their candles illuminating the darkness around the churches.
Regardless of when you visit Lalibela, it is likely that the impression the town makes on you will be lasting. We hired a guide to take us around the churches and explain their ‘history’. He was a young man who seemed to know everyone in the town, and who guided tourists to support his mother and siblings after his father abandoned the family – an altogether too common occurrence in Ethiopia.
We visited all eleven of Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches, walking through narrow alleys, meeting the priests in each church and navigating between churches through passageways and tunnels carved out of solid rock. It was a magical and mystical experience. The only thing which jars a little, and this is a small issue, is the large metal roofs that have been erected over some of the churches by UNESCO to protect them from water damage. They’re quite ugly, but rather that than churches which are badly damaged.