I have wanted to visit Lalibela for years. It was one of those mystical destinations that plagued me. Making it to the small, northern Ethiopian town filled with underground carved churches felt like such a gift from life. Sometimes we get what we ask for...in a totally different way than we could have expected.
My friends and I, the other female fellow in Rwanda, the fellow in Uganda, and a fellow from Ethiopia flew on a little propeller plane from Addis to Lalibela a few short days after arriving in Ethiopia. We decided on Lalibela as our destination because of the trekking possibilities (in another post) and the draw of the World Heritage site that houses 13 underground churches known as the "Jerusalem of Africa." Lalibela is Ethiopia's second "holy city," behind Axum, where the 10 Commandments and Ark of the Covenant are thought to be housed. Ethiopia is predominantly Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and the religious history is fascinating and ancient. We had to see these living churches for ourselves.
We stayed in a hotel that conveniently had no electricity or water (dang, Africa!) but we made do by sitting by the pool and complaining a lot. Luckily, by the final night all was well and we got warm showers in our hotel rooms. Traveling in Africa has taught me so much about what I have taken for granted all my life. I am so glad to learn these lessons young so that I can have a more thoughtful life than I would have without Africa.
Anyways, the morning after we arrived we set out with a guide for a half-day tour. A half day was all we really needed, a full day would have been total over-kill. We donned our head wraps in respect (though we were told white people aren't expected to wear them) and wandered around the churches, all 13 within walking distance, and ooo'ed and ahhh'ed at the grandeur. They were as beautiful and big and inspiring as I expected all these years.
The churches are thought to have been built in the 12th and 13th centuries when Lalibela was the capitol of Ethiopia.
What was most impactful for me was that these churches are still in use. The town relies on these churches as their home base. They are also seen as pilgrimage sites for the faithful. Each church that we went into had believers on their knees, being blessed by priests, and elderly reading from stained books that seemed to be falling apart in their use and age. We were visiting as tourists, and we paid a hefty fee to get in as sightseers, but besides the obvious use of the churches as money-generating tourism, there was a sense of honor and respect. Of diety.
The faithful were there among us.
It is an honor to sit beside believers and observe their traditions and ferver. I have felt this way at holy sites in many of my travels, in Myanmar and Thailand and India and China...sometimes the holy mixes with practical tourism and someone like me finds themselves sitting next to an Ethiopian man knee deep in prayer. It's humbling to witness fervent faith that has somehow lived through generations of change (and mayhem) in Ethiopia.
Some photos of the churches and surrounding areas....
After 2 days in Lalibela, we set out for our next adventure....trekking....
walk slow. xoxo.