At the base of Bete Medhane Alam, we stopped, looked up, looked down, following the soaring russet pillars shaded by a protective roof. We had read the brochures, we had seen the pictures, we had done the one-hour flight, and now we were here—at the first stop on the church tour in Lalibela, Ethiopia’s second holiest location. I had seen European-style churches with their flying buttresses and overreaching arches, all gothic splendour and romanesque pageantry; but I had not seen an ambitious church of this kind before, shrines chiselled out of free-standing volcanic rock, erupting as it seemed, from the ground beneath our feet.
Inside Bete Medhane Alam, the Church of the Savior of the World, it was dingy, lit partially by white lights, a priest standing in front of an altar packed with colourfully rendered scenes from the Bible. Our guide Alex, a slim man with a white cape, hefted two large drums and tapped them periodically as he explained their liturgical significance in Orthodox Christianity.
Ethiopia makes no secret of its branding as a holy place. This was the country that hosted the first mosque in Africa (Al Nejashi mosque), the city of Axum in the north purportedly holds the Arc of the Covenant—containing Moses’ Ten Commandments—and the country finds mention in both testaments.
Built by King Lalibela in the 12th century, the church complex made up of 11 rock-cut structures was built in the image of Jerusalem, the holy land more than 3,000 kilometres to the north. For medieval pilgrims the journey would have been costly, time-consuming and difficult, with the advent of Muslim rulers in the Middle East. So the king had a plan, if the people couldn’t go to the holy land, he would bring the holy land to them. “A pilgrimage here is considered the same as making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem,” said Alex. “That is why it is called the second Jerusalem.” The local river is referred to as the Jordan River, and there is a replica of Jesus’ grave in the Golgotha.
But Lalibela doesn’t function as an ersatz imitation of the Holy Land. Rather as a living, breathing monument of faith inspired by it, it is still used for prayer and very much the imposing places of worship that churches can be. Divided into the northern and southern group, and navigable by foot, the churches are visited by thousands of pilgrims annually. Lines of white-clad Coptic Christians snaked in and out of the complex all afternoon during our visit. At Bete Amanuel (Church of Emanuel), a chunky, ribbed building with patterned windows, an exorcism seemed to be under way. A woman writhed on the ground, in the centre of the church as people murmured prayers. We stepped aside.
Unadorned and deceptively simple looking, the churches were created by slicing through the rock from top to bottom, rather than the more traditional way of constructing from bottom to top. Some of the churches had large courtyards, others, atop heights had to be reached through passageways, and in the case of Bete Gabriel-Rufael, a bridge. How many people worked on the construction, one member of the group asked. “It was built by angels,” said Alex, meaning every word he said. “Sorry who?” the man asked, slightly perplexed. “Angels,” repeated Alex. “That’s how it was built so quickly.” The mysterious powers of god and king would be repeatedly invoked through the course of the afternoon.
Local legend has it that the king built the Lalibela complex with a large army of divine volunteers, helping finish it in two decades, during his rule. But several scientists and historians believe a complex this sprawling and intricate could not have been completed so quickly. Someone asked who the architect was behind the constructions. “The king,” said Alex. “He was the architect, the planner, the designer, everything!” It was hard to understand the plan of the complex on one’s own, the curving entrances and labyrinthine passages, some leading to other churches, others to caves or darkened dead ends. We skipped and stumbled over stones and shrubs, trying to make sense of this medieval complex recognised as a UNESCO monument.
The most impressive was the Bete Giyorigs, or the Church of St George, which had to be approached down a dusty path. The cruciform shape patterned out of the landscape—lead image to a thousand travel stories—split the hill open. We slid downwards until we arrived at the foot of the 30 metre tall structure, the once-pink rocks crusted over by age, yellowed by time. The interior was dark and unadorned, with no joints or pillars, no large area for prayer. Most of the churches we visited were functional like this one: with a basic altar and a presiding priest, and visitors forbidden to peek beyond the heavy curtain containing a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. Some had frescos and wall art. At Bete Golgotha, which holds the tomb of the king, we could only peer through the door. Women were not allowed inside, and the men in the group declined to go in, in solidarity, despite some prodding by Alex.
Outside, someone opened the small musty museum beside the ticket office for us. The twin scents of dust and age swept through. Behind glass cases lay thick holy vestments, liturgical items and large, cracked books written in the Ge’ez script, the language of the church and the ancient language from which Amharic, the country’s official language, descended.
Later that evening, sated on scripture and sacrament, we headed for dinner to Ben Abeba, a hilltop restaurant designed like something out of an Eischer painting with its odd shapes and looping platforms and pathways. Here, as the wind howled, we were served large plates of injera, a soft sourdough crepe-like bread, with a colourful assortment of accompaniments.
In the holy town, there was no sacramental wine, but there was honey wine by the jug. We ended the day at Torpedo Tej Bet, a local watering hole, where men and women sat on low stools around tables, swilling more and more of the honey wine as the evening progressed. Clapping and dancing ensued, men moving rhythmically, mostly deploying their shoulders, whilst stomping and singing.
Lalibela lies north of Addis Ababa and can be reached by a one-hour flight. Discounts are available on domestic flights for those who fly into the country on Ethiopian Airlines. There isn’t much to the town itself, aside from the magnificent churches. The complex can be reached by auto rickshaw, known as “Bajaj” in Ethiopia. It costs USD 50/Rs3,575 to enter the complex and the ticket is valid for five days across all churches. It is best to visit with a guide as signage is poor and doesn’t provide a sense of history. Plus, the area can be confusing and difficult to navigate alone.