“I am weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more… but swear I by God in Whose power I am, that all that is written is the truth, and there is much more than what I have written, and I have left it that they may not tax me with its being falsehood.”
Francisco Alvares (early 16th-century Portuguese writer) from Ho Preste Joam das Indias: Verdadera informa-cam das terras do Preste Joam (1540)
Were it virtually anywhere but in Ethiopia, Lalibela would rightly be celebrated as one of the wonders of the world, as readily identified with Ethiopia as are the pyramids or the Sphinx with Egypt. As it is, Lalibela is barely known outside Ethiopia, and Ethiopia itself is associated first and foremost with desert and drought – not a little ironic, when you consider that the fertile Nile Basin, on which Egypt depends, receives 90% of its water from the Ethiopian Highlands. Lalibela’s obscurity is shameful but for those who visit the town it is part of the charm. These churches are not primarily tourist attractions, nor are they the crumbling monuments of a dead civilization. What they are, and what they have been for at least 800 years, is an active Christian shrine, the spiritual centre of a town’s religious life.
When you wander between the churches in the thin light of morning, when white-robed hermits emerge Bible-in-hand from their cells to bask on the rocks, and the chill highland air is warmed by Eucharistic drumbeats and gentle swaying chants, you can’t help but feel that you are witnessing a scene that is fundamentally little different from the one that has been enacted here every morning for century upon century.
The joy of Lalibela, the thing that makes this curiously medieval town so special, is that it is not just the rock-hewn churches that have survived into the modern era, but also something more organic. The churches breathe.
The Lalibela churches are big – several are in excess of 10m high – and, because they are carved below ground level, they are ringed by trenches and courtyards, the sides of which are cut into with stone graves and hermit cells, and connected to each other by a tangled maze of tunnels and passages.
In size and scope, the church complex feels like a subterranean village. Yet each individual church is unique in shape and size, precisely carved and minutely decorated. Lalibela is, in a word, awesome.
I have been an admirer of David Dechemin for a while, both his photography and his writing. He expressed his feelings on visiting Lalibela in an article and I have to say I completely agree with his sentiments::
Coming out of one of the churches a man greets me with a smile and says something I don’t quite catch. We try a few more times and my ear keeps missing. One last try and I get: How do you like the churches? What do you feel?” Perhaps it’s just a quirk of using a language not completely his, but it catches me off guard. Not “what do you think?” but rather, “how do you feel?” I feel wonder, brother. I feel wonder.
No matter what you’ve heard about Lalibela, no matter how many pictures you’ve seen of its breathtaking rock-hewn churches, nothing can prepare you for the reality of seeing it for yourself. It’s not only a World Heritage Site, but truly a world wonder. Spending a night vigil here during one of the big religious festivals, when white-robed pilgrims in their hundreds crowd the courtyards of the churches, is to witness Christianity in its most raw and powerful form.
I hope you found this interesting. Please feel free to leave any thoughts, questions or comments that you might have.
Briggs, Philip (2012-09-24). Ethiopia (Bradt Travel Guides). Bradt Travel Guides. Kindle Edition.
Planet, Lonely; Jean-Bernard Carillet; Tim Bewer; Stuart Butler (2013-05-01). Lonely Planet Ethiopia, Djibouti & Somaliland (Travel Guide). Lonely Planet Publications. Kindle Edition.