Dora Bitsi

Dora Bitsi

Nov 17 2014

The Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela

In the Abyssinian highlands, hidden in the mountains of the North, lies the old city of  Lalibela, one of the most beautiful places in Ethiopia and one with a long history.

It may take a two day trip by bus to arrive from Addis Abbeba (or if you don’t feel that keen to suffer you can take also a plane) but the trip is totally worth it! Keep your eyes open and on the way to the North you will be passing from the famous highlands Ethiopia is so famous for.

In these areas the altitude is very high thus giving an excellent climate of enough rain so that there are verdant plains until the eye can reach. Small huts and roads filled with livestock make the scenery very rustic. Of course the loud Ethiopian tunes from the bus’s CD player are the best soundtrack throughout this trip. 
However, other than scenic the trip was also a bit difficult. The road had million turns and of course I ended up vomiting several times until the city of Woldia where we spent the night. We arrived there in a bad state after the 10 hour drive and all we wanted was to sleep. However, fate had different plans for us that night!

Exhausted, we fell to bed early but around 3am we were woken by the terrifying screams of a woman!! She was screaming like she was possessed and her voice was making our hair stand up!! We were petrified! Men from other rooms started banging her door to open it but she wouldn’t stop! Finally after half an hour she calmed a bit. We had to wake up in 2 hours for our bus but with all this mess we were scared because Ethiopians really believe in evil spirits!

Anyway at 6 am we were on the bus again bargaining for our right to the local ticket price.At 7.30 am finally the bus departed on a 8 hour route through a road from hell! Going up and down hills turning through blind turns and after we passed a capsized truck we spent the rest of the time thinking about the best way to escape through the windows in case the bus fell off the cliff! 

But finally we arrived safe and unharmed to the village of Lalibela, nested between the highest mountain tops we have ever seen. Lalibela of course is the one of the most touristic destinations in Ethiopia due to its Rock Hewn Churches. The Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela were cut out of a living rock during the time of King Lalibela, who ruled Ethiopia from his capital Roha, now Lalibela. 
Lalibela is more of a village than city with still a traditional setting, something that we liked. It has the setting of a neighbourhood with children in their uniforms walking from school , and people hanging out in the cobbled dusty streets with the traditional two storey houses and again the everpresent goats. We stayed in  Asheton Hotel which was the best we have encountered in Ethiopia.

Still, the  everpresent bed bugs found us there as well, giving us some serious scratching every morning we woke up. In Lalibela the best restaurant and cheapest was Tena Restaurant, rather local but they cooked the most delicious tibs (meat) we had ever tasted!

After two days of relaxation we decided to visit the churches. There was even a very official ticket office. But we only left in disappointment when he heard that it cost $50 for a 4 day pass PER PERSON. And there was not even a student discount!!! This was way over our budget and this price was the highest that we were ever asked to pay for a sight! So, we decided (such a pity) that we would not see the churches.

The next day during breakfast though, we were lucky again.We met an Italian lady  and she offered to give us her ticket for a day. She said no names are ever checked so I could go in her place! Carlos, a Portuguese tour operator (he has also written a book Nunca e Tarde) also volunteered to help by giving Elpis his ticket and we found ourselves happily entering the site a day later!

It is not that we didn’t want to support by paying a ticket. We wouldn’t mind a normal price like $20, but unfortunately the Ethiopians when it comes to tourism, they charge really high prices.. And of course, the money are not used wisely towards the development of the communities. So, it would be better for us to spend this money to our charity programs and help directly the local people that really need it.

Bete Giorgis- One of the iconic symbols of Ethiopian legacy
The set of 11 churches included in the site that were curved in the 12th and 13th Centuries. It is believed that the carving of all the churches took some 24 years. Archaeologists say it would have taken the work of 40,000 work force to carve these churches, courtyards and caverns out of a living rock. It took us several hours to visit all of them and finding your way through the secret passages was a true adventure! The most impressive out of them and the most architecturally significant is Bete Giorgis a free standing church symbolising Noah’s Ark.
What is interesting is that the interior is not rich in murals like the Greek Orthodox churches. It is very plain with only 2 or 3 pictures of the saint that the church is dedicated to and some benches for the pilgrims. There you can also see clearly under the dim light getting through the cross shaped small windows, the marks from the tools that figured these structures. You cannot but be amazed by the hard work it must have taken.

The next day before dawn we were up again ready to fight with the bus drivers our ticket for it would be a long ride till the city of Bahir Dar.

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