Blog of the Week: Rocking the rock churches of Lalibela
Blog Words : Blog of the week | 03 September

Blog of the Week: Rocking the rock churches of Lalibela

Blogger Lisa V takes on a twisting – and twisted – tour of Ethiopia's legendary rock churches and ends up in a restaurant doing the chicken dance.

We were spoilt in Lalibela. We stayed at a hotel for the first time in ages and it was incredible. It’s the 28-day-old Lalibela Lodge with sweeping views of the entire mountainside, large rooms, hot showers, comfy beds and a lovely owner, Hab.

Eight of us only had one full day in Lalibela as we were heading off overland to Axum and Debark (Simien Mountains) so we packed in a full day of Lalibela’s famous rock-hewn churches.

Mario, Hab’s cousin, was our guide for the churches and he was incredible. He grew up here and even used to play ‘hide and seek’ in the churches and the myriad of secret underground tunnels so needless to say he knows it well.

Scholars are divided on whether the churches are designed to represent the powerful monarch’s reign, reproduce the holy site of Jerusalem or communicate religious beliefs. Legend has it that the churches were hewn out of the rock by angels but tradition speaks of 24 years of uninterrupted work day and night by more than 40,000 people to complete these structures. Axes, chisels, and hammers were among the primitive tools used to excavate the churches, making it even more incredible, particularly as a high degree of accuracy was required.

King Lalibela had the inspiration in a vision and devoted his entire life to their constructions, spending all his patrimony and even selling off his children as slaves to gain the means to conclude his mission! Since 1978 it has been on a World Heritage Site and it’s really no wonder that it is supposedly the eighth wonder of the world.

The first group of churches contains: Biet Medhane Alem (The Saviour of the World) – at 33.5m long by 23.5m wide by 11m high, it’s the largest monolithic church in the world; Biet Mariam; Biet Maskal; Biet Denghel (House of the Virgins); and Biet Golgotha-Micael-Selassie, which includes the Selassie crypt, the holiest place in Lalibela (which only men can get somewhat nearer to but still cannot enter). ‘A Guide to Lalibela’ says the first non-ecclesiastics known to have entered this chapel were Italians in 1939 and this apparently took place ‘at the point of a pistol’.

Biet Giyorgis (St George) stands alone and it was by far my favourite. Looking down from above on the cross-shaped church blew me away. It had yellow lichen on the façade, which is cleaned off at Ethiopian Christmas but I think it adds to its charm. It has a secret access passage and three layers – the bottom is meant to represent the water level of Noah’s Ark, the middle where the animals were kept and the upper when Noah and his family lived.

The second group of churches consists of: Biet Gabriel Raphael; Biet Lehem (the holy bakery); Biet Mercurios (which has a pitch black tunnel below it to represent hell and the church above represents heaven); Biet Emmanuel; and Biet Abba Libanos.

They really are incredible constructions.

Of course we also had to sample Lalibela's local restaurants and bars albeit in the short time we had there.

Ben Abeba restaurant was recommended to us by a US architect we met in Ristorante Castelli in Addis who has travelled around Ethiopia extensively. The restaurant was designed by two young Ethiopians and has paths winding around each other skywards to a rooftop with incredible views and a very cool owner, Suzie. The food is made fresh.

Unique restaurant was then recommended to us by Suzie. It only has a couple of tables but again, everything is made fresh.

Askalech/Torpedo tej/Azmari bar was listed in the Lonely Planet. For 40 Birr we ordered the more expensive ‘special’ tej (local honey wine), which is stronger and sweeter. The tej comes out in a glass beaker and the waitress tips it on its side and taps it against the tray to remove the thin layer of sediment on top.

The bar was a room filled with people sitting on low tables and chairs, listening to local music. A man was playing a one-stringed instrument with a bow, called a massinko and a lady wearing a long, traditional white dress sung in accompaniment. They would both pull people up from the crowd to dance with them – the ‘in’ style seems to involve lots of shoulder jerking while keeping your hands still which, if you’re uncoordinated, can feel like you’re doing the chicken dance! (much to the amusement of the locals).

As if laughing at your dance style were not enough, they also pick on people in the crowd (like a kind of court jester) and evidently what they said was funny as everyone would roar out loud with laughter. We couldn’t understand a thing as it was all in Amharic. As far as we could gather from our taxi driver who came early to pick us up, they had a good laugh at Shaun’s beard and also joked that although we were Australian they still liked us! Something was also said about us girls being sweet like candy! I think a lot was lost in the translation as clearly it was hilarious and all at our expense.

Can’t wait to find another tej/Azmari bar but next time we will be bringing an interpreter!

Lisa V10 pieces to make the world cleaner | Lisa V

Lisa started her blog with a clear goal in mind: to try to make the world a cleaner place, all while having an incredible adventure along the way. How?  By picking up ten pieces of rubbish wherever she visits in the world (and disposing of it as best she can). Judging by her blog, she's got the adventure bit covered.

Take a closer look at 10 pieces | Nominate your blog here