The Globetrotting Diaries: The Stone-Hewn Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia

Africa

Church of St George_Lalibela, Ethiopia

The moment I saw it, I wondered how I could have missed it for so long. Lalibela, Ethiopia should have been at the top of my bucket list!

It’s not just because Lalibela is the holiest city of Ethiopia, or as Lonely Planet calls it “history and mystery frozen in stone.” At 8000 feet, on a central plateau stand 11 Churches carved from a single, gigantic, block of stone. No bricks, no mortar, and mysteriously, the tools used for this massive task have never been found.

Some claim there is no mystery, saying the churches of Lalibela were built by angels. But whatever their origins, there is no denying this collection of monolithic 16th century churches will take your breath right away.

Fueled up with a cup of the best coffee in the world (Ethiopia is where Coffea Arabica, the coffee plant, originated) I am awake, and ready to drink it all in. But really, nothing can prepare you for the impossible and unimaginable vastness of Lalibela.

Church of St George in Lalibela

We wander carefully and discreetly with our guide. After all, this is a pilgrimage for many and a place of worship for those fortunate enough to live in the villages nearby.

The most photographed of the churches, St George’s, stands on its own in the shape of a cross. Climbing down the stairs I come face to face (or face to feet) with cavities carved into the wall holding mummified corpses, complete with feet and toes nicely positioned for eternal comfort.

At the edges of the holy site, life in the township carries on. Goats are bought and sold, children head eagerly to school, rows of colorful painted containers hold items the locals may need. A sewing machine and table in one, a butcher shop (no refrigeration) in another, a man receiving a haircut and a shave in the next. Running alongside you, young boys practice their bargaining skills and English skills, while they sell you their local crafts with great salesmanship and flair. Commerce is alive and well.

Raewyn Reid - Street Life in Lalibela, Ethiopia
Street life in Lalibela

It is only recently that tuk tuk taxis have found their way into the mix. Most locals walk the gravel roads for their daily needs, so much of life can be seen along the roadside. Boys deliver the local flatbread delicacy injera fresh from the oven, tucked into hand woven baskets, while mountains of laundry sit perfectly balanced, high on the heads of young girls. Donkeys are overloaded with sticks needed to keep animals safely enclosed next to the mud plastered walls of the family hut. Young men laden with enormous bundles of straw for a new thatched roof struggle up the mountainous roads.

Everyone has a job to do, so apart from those teenagers busy at the town’s foosball table, there is otherwise very little evidence of idleness. It’s a simple ethic; to eat requires hard work. But there is happiness and meaning in such a simple and purposeful life, demonstrated in the locals’ smiles and waves, even when our vehicle doused them in a cloud of dust (sorry!) on the way to our next Ethiopian adventure.