When I booked my Ethiopian trip I didn’t know anything about Lalibella until someone told me I must go so I juggled a few things and managed to fit in a couple of days. I had done my reading and knew I was going to see some rock hewn churches. Cool I thought. I’m not religious but churches fascinate me so it should be interesting. Oh how naive I am.
The hotel had arranged a guide for me and Thomas was ready and waiting at 8:00am as planned. It was a short uphill climb to the first of the churches in the southern group. They are split into two geographical locations, north and south and one standing out on its own, Bete Giorgios (Bete meaning house/home).
I was shattered by the climb but recovered enough to gasp when I saw Bete Aba Libanos close up. I expected small places but before me was a huge structure intricately carved surrounded by parishioners praying in the amphitheatre. I don’t know whether it was because it was the first one or because there was a service going on at the time but I liked this one the best and did not want to leave. The moment I passed into the confines of the walls, through the carved hole in the wall, an overwhelming sense of peace and calmness came over me.
I wont go into the fine details of all the churches but each detail in each of the 11 represents some part of either the new or old testament. The churches were inspired by King Lalibela (and word has it the he physically helped to build them, along with about 40,000 men and women) after a pilgrimage of Ethiopians were murdered by Moslems on the way to pray in Jerusalem. He decided to build this mini Jerusalem right here and set about carving them into the solid rock. Some are freestanding and only attached to the rock at the bottom, but others are totally encased by rock. There is a series of tunnels linking many of them together.
Thomas was so full of knowledge and relayed all the fine details of each, at the same time teaching me more about his religion. Today is Wednesday, a fast day. He will not eat or drink until 3pm. He does this every week on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Over Christmas and Easter and for forty days prior to each he fasts every day until 3pm.
The detail both inside and out of the churches was quite amazing, some preserved much better than others. Some have some remedial work done, in a sympathetic way, but the majority of each building is remarkably well preserved. As a UNESCO World Heritage site Unesco have constructed roofs over some of the structures to help preserve them. They look rather ugly but of they provide protection from the elements then so be it. I believe the locals are trying to get them removed as they believe the pressure of the wind and subsequent movement of the structures is weakening the foundations of the churches.
Over the space of about an hour we visited the remaining three churches of this group ( Bete Emanuel, Bete Merkoryos, Bete Gebriel and Rufael) which represents the part of Jerusalem sitting east of the Jordan River. Each church was completely different, mostly smaller than Bete Aba Libanos, with some carved into the rock and others freestanding. Without a doubt each one was amazing.
The northern group was nearby and our walk was through hand carved walkways with interesting little sights along the way. At one point were two carved ravines. One narrow and dark, the other wider. The narrow one depicting the walkway to heaven. Hard to get to and inky fits a few people at a time. It seems going to hell is much easier as there is lots of room for lots of us. The northern group represents Earthly Jerusalem and consists of Bete Medhane, Bete Maryam, Bete Meskell, Bete Denagil and Bete Golgotha and Debre Sina. The last two churches are joined together with access to Bete Golgotha through an internal door. Bete Golgotha is off limits to women (for some convoluted reason - which bore no substance at all) but Thomas went in and got some great pictures for me.
Another short walk away we saw Bete Giorgios in the distance, carved down into a massive rock with an intricately designed roof depicting 3 greek crosses. The roof of most of the free standing churches were slightly sloping to enable water run off, but this one was intricate in design but clever in the way it was sloped to allow that water to flow down through the drains on three sides.
Access to the church was via a short narrow channel built along the side and then a narrow tunnel into the courtyard. In the courtyard was an open tomb where you can see the remains of mumified bodies. A tad yuk, but thats life. The church inside was just as impressive as the outside and showed why this was considered the jewel in the crown. It supposedly symbolises Noah’s Ark.
This site has some good information and far more accurate and detailed than I can give: https://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-africa/rock-hewn-churches-lalibela-ethiopia-00154