A walk through ancient Lalibela

Lalibela’s 900-year old rock-hewn churches have been built in two distinct groupings, one group in the north and the other in the east. You can visit both in a single day, but it is probably better to give yourself more time to fully absorb the wonder of this place. The churches are connected by a series of ancient passageways and alleys, which are atmospheric places to wander.

Priest, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient passageway, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient passageway, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

A man prays outside a rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

A man prays outside a rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

The history of Lalibela is palpable. Everywhere you look there are stone corridors and staircases rubbed smooth by the passage of pilgrims over centuries of devoted worship. Buildings are carved with simple, early Christian symbols, and turning a corner can bring you face-to-face with a group of worshippers, in a scene which could have been witnessed at any time over the last 900 years.

Countryside surrounding Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Countryside surrounding Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Traditional houses, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Traditional houses, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Traditional houses, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Traditional houses, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

A visit to the churches is both full of surprise and a little disorienting. In true Indian Jones style, the churches of Bete Medhane Alem and Beta Maryam are linked by a tunnel, carved several feet underground out of solid rock. You can’t but admire the enormous effort which has gone into building this New Jerusalem.

Priest sits by a doorway, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest sits by a doorway, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Tunnel connecting churches, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Tunnel connecting churches, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Passageway, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Passageway, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Religious paintings on a door, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Religious paintings on a door, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Set amidst beautiful rolling countryside, this mountainous region provides the perfect backdrop to such an ancient and mysterious town. Yet, despite all the history, Lalibela remains a small and relaxed place largely off the beaten track. Tourism has made an impact here, but remains low key and largely unobtrusive…for how long remains to be seen.

Traditional houses, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Traditional houses, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopia’s ‘New Jerusalem’, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela

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.

Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Priest at the Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest at the Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

A man prays in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

A man prays in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

A tunnel between churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

A tunnel between churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Entrance to a church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Entrance to a church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient Christian carving, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient Christian carving, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross and umbrella, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross and umbrella, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopia, home of coffee and the origin of the species

Ethiopia is a beautiful and fascinating country. A country which defies cliché. Yet the legacy of the vicious Marxist government, and the terrible droughts and famine of the 1980s, still frame people’s perceptions of it and it’s people. It is a country like no other, where received wisdom is hopelessly out of kilter with reality. Our twelve days in Ethiopia, splitting our time between Axum in the north, Bahir Dar on Lake Tana and the extraordinary Lalibela, would only be a taster of this amazing country.

Church in the colours of the Ethiopian flag, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Church in the colours of the Ethiopian flag, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

My first impression of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, wasn’t great. I arrived at 2am, and the drive through the dark, silent streets was at high speed. When my taxi arrived at the hotel I discovered my room had been given away. I could see my name on the reservation list, but a European tour group was stranded by a cancelled flight – one of the group was happily sleeping in my bed. Ironically, the tour group organiser came to my rescue, suggesting another hotel. I finally got to bed around 4am.

Not honouring hotel bookings is small fry compared to some of Ethiopia’s more entrenched problems. I was thinking about my trip a few years ago, while reading a recent news article. The only opposition member of the Ethiopian Parliament, Girma Seifu Maru, was quoted saying that the government’s suppression of opposition was storing up trouble for the future. Thats putting it mildly. On my first day in Addis Ababa, a taxi driver pointed out the university, adding that, thanks to a government crackdown on student protests, most of the students were completing their studies in prison.

Ethiopian Coptic priest, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Things don’t seem to have improved much between my visit and now. Corruption, poverty, a lack of transparency and accountability continue to blight the country’s 94 million inhabitants. As does the proxy war Ethiopia is fighting in Somalia on behalf of the United States and its allies. Yet if Ethiopia’s present is beset with problems, its ancient history might point toward a glorious future.

A lion in Zion, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

A lion in Zion, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Boasting Africa’s richest historical heritage, the human history of the country can be traced back to some of the earliest stone tools (around 2.5 million years old). Around 800 BC, when the Phoenicians were founding Carthage, an ancient kingdom existed in Ethiopia. This gave rise to the Aksumite Empire which, by 300 AD, stretched across the Red Sea to Yemen, and was considered one of the world’s great powers (alongside the Roman, Persian and Chinese Empires). The famed Axum Stelae are evidence of the sopistication of the Aksumite civilisation.

Ancient stelae in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient stelae in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Landscape near Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Landscape near Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Global trade routes, and proximity to the Middle East, meant the Aksumite Empire was heavily influenced by the monotheistic religions that flourished there. There is an ancient Jewish tribe, the Falasha, which has existed in Ethiopia for centuries. The Ethiopian Queen, Makeda, also known as the Queen of Sheba, is supposed to have visited King Solomon’s Jerusalem. Allegedly, Solomon is the father of her child, Menelik, who established Juadism as the religion of the Aksumite Empire.

This may be myth, but it was the foundation stone of legitimacy for Ethiopia’s monarchy. Part of the King Solomon story relates how the Ark of the Covenant was brought and hidden in Ethiopia by Menelik. It apparently remains under lock and key in Axum’s Maryam Tsion Church, and only one living person has actually seen it.

A young shepherd looks over the Blue Nile waterfalls, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

A young shepherd looks over the Blue Nile waterfalls, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

When Christianity emerged it was adopted by the Aksumite Empire, which in 324 AD became one of the first Christian kingdoms. The legacy of this can be seen across Ethiopia. There are monasteries and churches throughout the country, many over 1000 years old – the extraordinary rock-hewn churches of Lalibela being some of the finest examples. As Islam spread across the region, Ethiopia became isolated from developments elsewhere in the Christian world. This isolation has bequeathed the unique Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity to the world.

Young girl in a village near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young girl in a village near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian houses in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian houses in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Given this, it’s ironic that Ethiopia is the site of some of the most significant archaeological discoveries related to human evolution. In 1974, in the remote and dangerous Afar Depression, teams of scientists discovered numerous Hominid bones that are a major piece of evidence that our ancestors evolved in, and migrated out of, Africa. This includes the 3.5 million year old skeleton of Lucy, an iconic human ancestor and an evolutionary ‘missing link’. Lucy wasn’t on display when I was in Addis Ababa, she’d been packed off to tour the United States.

Unique amongst African nations, Ethiopia was never colonised. During the 19th Century ‘Scramble for Africa’, Ethiopia fought tenaciously for its independence from would-be colonisers. The continuity of hereditary monarchy was only interrupted once, between 1936 – 41. The brief Italian occupation left little behind other than second rate pasta and third rate wine. The culture, religion and cuisine remain uniquely Ethiopian.

Rock-hewn Ethiopian Coptic church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn Ethiopian Coptic church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

The hereditary monarchy held on to power into the modern-era, ruling over a largely feudal society. This all came to a dramatic end when, in 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted by a hardline Communist military government, the Derg. Ethiopia became a Cold War satellite of the Soviet Union, and the Derg unleashed a period of terror. It was the failed policies of the Derg which led to the famine of the 1980s. Propped up by Soviet military aid, it was only in 1991 that the Derg was finally forced from power.

Since then, Ethiopia has fought a crippling war against its neighbour, Eritrea; a conflict that still flares up periodically. It also adopted a democratic constitution, but has lurched from one rigged election to another, keeping the same party in power since 1991. New elections are expected in 2015, their outcome may determine the course of Ethiopia’s future and whether-or-not the bottled-up dissent spills onto the streets.

The Blue Nile waterfalls, one of the origins of the River Ethiopia, Africa

The Blue Nile waterfalls, one of the origins of the River Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopia is also the home of one of humanity’s defining pleasures: coffee. The coffee bean originated in Ethiopia, and Ethiopian varieties are considered some of the finest in the world. Coffee plays a special role in Ethiopian society, including an elaborate coffee ceremony – the ritualised making and drinking of three cups of coffee for each person. As a visitor, you’re regularly called upon to drink coffee several times each day. Its easy to spend your entire time in the country permanently wired.