Juliet and I arrived in Lalibela on Good Friday, and went straight to the main cluster of churches, where we saw a sea of white shawls spilling out of the churches and dotting the ledges above.
The churches are carved into the mountains and surrounded by narrow passageways and oddly-shaped crevices and then, when you least expect it, other smaller churches, all of which are also scattered with white-shawled people watching, praying, moving between the churches, or just listening to the chanting.
Shortly before sunset, the priests and deacons led processions around the churches, carrying candles, crosses, and a model of the Ark of the Covenant (every church has one and even the models are considered very holy; only certain people can touch them). The deacons carry brightly-colored umbrellas, apparently to cover the priests and the model Ark as a show of respect, and the procession is followed by people on the ground and watched from above by others. It reminded me a little bit of how the Torah is decorated and carried around a synagogue, with everyone trying to get close enough to touch it.
Some young boys who were going to school in Lalibela led us around through various nooks and crannies of the churches, trying to find us the best views of the processional. Normally I’m not a fan of this kind of informal “tour,” but these kids were far too sweet, polite, and enthusiastic to refuse. They kept holding our hands as we wobbled down some of the slipperier hills and ledges, even though they each weighed about 60 lbs and were definitely not capable of catching us if we fell.
The following day, we went with a guide to see the rest of the churches. The most amazing thing about the Lalibela churches is that they were not built into the mountains, but rather carved out of them. To create the churches, a deep moat-like circle had to be dug into a mountain to form the outer walls of a church and a walkway around it. Then windows would be dug into the mound of rock remaining in the middle. Workmen would climb into the windows and dig out the inside of the church from there. On the outside of the church, they would often carve in details to make it look like a church that had been built out of stone or wood. Looking at them now, it’s hard to imagine that these each of these huge, beautiful structures was once just the inside of a mountain.
Getting to all of the churches was an experience in itself. We walked up the mountains, through narrow pathways and pitch-black caves, and down a series of staircases that can only exist in a place where there are no lawsuits.
The town was founded by King Lalibela and the churches were created under his direction in the 12th century. The myth is that the churches were created very quickly — one within a day — with the help of angels. King Lalibela’s vision was to create a symbolic Jerusalem in Ethiopia, since most Ethiopians would never be able to make a pilgrimage to Israel, which explains this “Tomb of Adam” sign. Lalibela also has a Jordan River and a Mount of Olives.
During the tour on Saturday, we were also able to go inside the churches, which were relatively empty for the day between Good Friday and Easter. Most of them are pretty basic inside, but a few had elaborate arches, carvings, and paintings (some newer freestanding ones, and some very old frescos on the walls).
These are prayer sticks, which are used to lean on during prayers, since services are conducted mostly standing up and can go on all day and well into the night for major holidays.
After spending most of the day at the churches, we went to see the local market that’s held every Saturday. Since this was the day before Easter, it was particularly packed. Ethiopians have fasting days for 55 days before Easter, which means they don’t eat for part of the day and they don’t eat any meat at all, so on Saturday every family was buying cows, goats, sheep, and chickens to break their fasts with the following day. On our way to the market, we saw little kids carrying chickens by their feet, older kids competing over whose cow was bigger, and countless sheep and goats being pulled / pushed / cajoled to move as they dug their hooves into the dirt and bleated. They don’t seem like the smartest animals but maybe they knew what was coming.
After visiting the market, we rounded out the day watching the sun set over the mountains.
Easter Sunday, we spent most of the day relaxing at our hotel, which we loved for many reasons, including its beautiful gardens (I can’t resist posting the flower pics).
On Sunday night Messay, the owner of our hotel, took us and a friend we met from a tour group out to celebrate Easter the way the locals do: by drinking excessive amounts of tej and then moving to another bar to watch (and occasionally join in) traditional dancing. The buttons are festive wear for Easter.
And that’s Lalibela (although I still think the professionals said it best).
Coming up next: Ethiopian food, Day at Lalibela Airport courtesy of Ethiopian Airlines, a visit from Daniel, and Life in Gaborone.