Ethiopia Part 5, Lalibela

Sorting the Grains outside the Church, Lalibela, Ethiopia 2018

Boy, a long cold shower and a comfortable bed in Mekele sure felt good after our trip out to the Danakil Depression but we are ready to continue our journey the next morning. The post and photos for that section of our trip, Ethiopia Part 4, will be published shortly. We are back on the historical circuit in northern Ethiopia and Lalibela is our next and final destination for this section of our travels. We can take the main road south to Woldia then some rough roads back to Lalibela or just head out of Mekele on a back road which should take us all the way south to our destination. No contest really especially when we are told the back road is a bit rough but very scenic.

The scenery is all it is advertised to be and we are loving the drive. It’s slow going as long sections are undergoing road works and  we have to pick our track between piles of stones and dug out sections of the road. Parts where the road works haven’t begun are rough but much easier to negotiate. We travel slowly and stop often for photos.

We’ve been taking our time not worried if we make it through to Lalibela in one day or not but then a section of sharp stones makes the decision for us. We have a flat tyre and change it but within a few kilometres we have second flat, seems like we have left our purchase of new tyres a bit longer than we should have. With no spares we decide to stop at the next town and get some repairs before continuing onward. Sekota is actually the only town between Mekele and Lalibela which has a hotel we can stay at so we are grateful for a place to stay. In the morning we get plugs in the tyres and hope they will suffice until we can either get better repairs or new tyres. A cup of coffee in town and some bread rolls and bananas as we drive does us for breakfast and we are back on the road toward Lalibela.

Morning Coffee in Sekota on the Back Road between Mekele and Lalibela, Ethiopia 2018

There are some tricky sections and plenty more wonderful views so we are happy to see them in the morning rather than in the late afternoon after a long day’s drive.

We reach Lalibela and check out a couple of options to stay and settle on the Tukul Village Hotel. Tukuls are cone shaped mud huts but we are staying here because they also have a proper camping area and are very centrally located. We have met very few other overlanders while we have been travelling in Ethiopia and no other Aussies but here we meet up with an Australian family who are making their way from Namibia where they have been living and working for several years and are now travelling up to Egypt to ship their vehicle back to Australia. Its great to catch up with them and share some stories.

The rock hewn churches of Lalibela date from around the time of King Lalibela, 1181-1221, but there are differences of belief about why they were constructed and how long the construction took. Regardless of the answer they are amazing, they are all built below ground level and they aren’t just carved into the rock, they are freed from it. They are all used regularly and as well as tourists they are visited by numerous pilgrims and priests. Services are held in different churches at different times and religious festivals are celebrated with all night vigils with hundreds of white robed pilgrims.

As tourists we have to pay for entry but one admission price covers all of the churches and last for five days and covers all costs except for a guide. We arrange to meet a guide early the next morning, the churches are closed during the middle of the day so we will visit one group of churches in the morning and the other in the afternoon and then Paul can return to any he wants to in the next few days if he wants early morning or late afternoon photos.

The best known church, and the most photographed, is Bet Giyorgis, or St George’s Church. St George is very popular in Ethiopia and features frequently in the art work which adorns the churches. This church is carved in the shape of a 15 metre high Ethiopian Cross and is very well preserved. Some of the cavities in the walls surrounding the church hold mummified corpses. Its a place Paul revisits twice to take photos in different light.

So we can take as long or short a time as we want we generally like to wander around without a guide just using a guide book or descriptions to make sense of what we are seeing. Lalibela though is a place where a guide is highly advised as there are so many places to visit and passages and tunnels connecting them that on our own we would have quickly become lost and missed lots of places to see. And that’s apart from all the information we were given. One of the more interesting ways to get from one church to another is along a 35m pitch black tunnel which is known as the Passage to Hell. It is supposed to walked in the dark (watch your head) but we cheated and used a torch.

As we walk around the churches we see many priests, often sitting and reading their bibles. For once photographs are not only allowed but welcome and there is no mention of paying for them as the entry fee covers all photos.

There are also pilgrims visiting the churches. As they enter a church they chant and kiss the building before entering for their prayers.

The first church we visit in the afternoon is Bet Gabriel-Rufael, and we need to wait to enter as there is a service underway.

One of the later churches we visit which was probably my favourite is Bet Amanuel. It is the most finely carved church and may have been the royal family’s private chapel.

The interiors are often fairly dark but there are sometimes fascinating details.

The day is filled easily wandering around the churches. Some have weathered significantly and have been covered with metal roofs to protect them.

After a full day of wandering around the churches we are happy to have a rest day and we had thought we would leave on the following day, Saturday. Our guide tells us that there is a religious festival on Sunday and on Saturday evening hundreds of pilgrims will begin chanting outside one of the churches and will continue all night. We change plans and decide to stay until Sunday so we can visit the market on Saturday then visit the church late Saturday evening to see the pilgrims before we head out in the morning.

The Saturday market is large and has lots of country people as well as local town people attending. There are even some blocks of salt which have been brought by camel caravan from the Danakil Depression but the price has risen from the 6-9 Birr for a 5kg block which the salt miners get to 200 Birr per block.

The animal market is part of the main market and is held just a short distance down the hill.

Saturday evening we decide to eat at one of the restaurants before visiting the church. Ben Abeba is Ethio-Scottish–owned and is aptly described as a Dali-esque jumble of walkways, platforms and fire pits. It is perched on the edge of the ridge for 360-degree views and we arrive in time for sunset.

Unfortunately just after the sun has set the rain clouds thicken and we have to move inside away from the view. The food is very good but the rain doesn’t stop and we give up on the idea of waiting until later and then standing in the rain watching the pilgrims. Never mind, Lalibela was a memorable place anyway.


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