When we decided to visit Ethiopia, my husband insisted that we go to Lalibela.
He had heard about the town back when he studied religion as an undergraduate. He said it was famous for its churches.
Once we arrived, I could see why.
Lalibela’s churches are monolithic rock-cut churches, which means each church was hand-carved from a single block of stone.
Back in the 12th and 13th centuries, workers excavated a wide trench around a proposed church. Then they carved out the interior. The amount of work and level of expertise required to carve these churches is astounding. There is simply no room for mistakes. (What would you do? Throw out the whole church?)
Even more astounding is the fact the people of Lalibela still attend daily services in the churches.
In my travels, I’ve visited other religious sites, but very few of them have still-active congregations.
Almost everyone in Lalibela is Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. People’s lives revolve around the church. Church services take place seven days a week, and last for at least three hours every day. Services are so long, in fact, that they begin at four or five am so that people have time to work during the day. Fasting is also a regular practice, and children are expected to participate in fasting days by the time they are 7 years old. There are more than 200 days of fasting per year, including every Wednesday and Friday.
Another thing I found interesting is that even in a very spiritual place like Lalibela, people are not immune to the temptations of money. The town has a ridiculous number of priests and deacons. There are more than 50 per church! Why so many? Because all of the entrance fees and donations to the churches go directly into the priests’ pockets.
Our tour guide seemed a bit frustrated by this, which is understandable. Does a church really need 50 priests? Plus, as he pointed out, when all the money raised by the churches goes straight to the priests, it means there is no money to repair these ancient structures, several of which are beginning to crack and crumble.
Touring the churches felt quite magical, both because they are so old, and because a sense of spirituality permeated every corner. Priests in white robes meditated inside many of the churches, and fading paintings and tapestries depicted many of the bible stories that I’m familiar with. If you ever travel to Ethiopia, I highly recommend you visit Lalibela.
If you go to Lalibela, here are my tips:
- The altitude is very high (2600 meters/8530 feet above sea level), so you might feel light-headed and have trouble sleeping. Be sure to drink lots of water and take things slowly. Even though you are close the equator, this altitude keeps the weather cooler, so pack accordingly.
- Ethiopia does not have a robust high-end tourism sector, so you won’t be able to stay at any fancy hotels in Lalibela. That being said, our hotel had hot water, a flushing toilet, and clean bed linens, so it was fine, just not fancy.
- You have to take your shoes off in every church, so wear socks that you don’t mind getting dirty. You might also want to wear slip-on shoes.