Churches in the rock

Rock-hewn churches of Lalibela

We left the Oasis truck in Bahir Dar for a 6-night tour of Northern Ethiopia by bus. Although we left the truck, 20 of the 23 people on board opted to do the same tour, so it was the same crowd (mostly), but a different vehicle. We were in for a driving marathon, spending 43 hours on the bus and covering nearly 1200km in 7 days. We were on a mission to visit three significant destinations: Lalibela, home of the rock-hewn churches of Ethiopia, Axum, the ancient centre of the Axumite Dynasty, and the Simien Mountains National Park. Lalibela was our first stop on the loop, and the one that I was looking forward to the most. We would be visiting 11 churches there, each one carved by hand into the solid rock of the surrounding landscape. According to one of the guidebooks we read, these rock-hewn churches would be one of the 7 Wonders of the World, if only they weren’t in Ethiopia. I suppose what they mean by this is that the churches simply aren’t that well known outside of the country, and had they been in, say, Egypt (perhaps alongside the pyramids), they would likely have attracted much more attention, along with much larger crowds of tourists. The hidden advantage of the situation is that the churches are not yet overrun with outsiders and sightseers, and many of the churches are still functioning as they always have. We felt like an extremely large and unwieldly group as we made our way through the small underground passageways that connected the buildings, but we felt (perhaps paradoxically) fortunate not to have to share the sites with any other large and unwieldly groups. Such is the joy of visiting a tourist attraction not yet discovered by tourists!

Studying outside the church

We began the day at the largest church, and immediately I was blown away. These are no small carvings dug tenuously into the dirt! There before us stood a full-size building, standing as though it had been freed from the stone around it by a vision and a steady hand. Or perhaps I should say a few hundred steady hands. The idea that these churches were carved from solid igneous and basalt rock with hand-held tools over 500 years ago simply makes the mind balk. The surviving original columns on the outside of the building where the most telling, as you could see the transformation of the stone from soft volcanic at the top to hard basalt at the base over a height of twenty feet or so. As we went inside, we discovered that even the interior structure was carved monolithically from the stone. No columns or beams were added afterwards — they were simply carved around and left standing where they had been formed thousands of years before the workers revealed them. Take a moment and try to imagine what it would be like to try and carve out the inside of a church from a solid piece of stone. Crazy, right? Well, it was done. And there we were, standing inside the result.

Inside the church

The churches weren’t breathtaking in the same way some of Europe’s more impressive gothic churches are: they are much smaller, for starters, with much less ornamentation. But what they lack in space and colour seems insignificant when you are faced with the fact that they even exist. Let me explain what I mean. It makes perfect sense for a gothic church to exist: someone had a vision of a building, and they built it. As humans, we do this all the time. If we need shelter, we find sticks and rocks and grass and pile it up and lean things against each other and put a roof on it. Voila! Shelter is made. But in Lalibela, someone (King Lalibela, according to history) decided that his churches were already built, and that they simply needed to be revealed. So he went out, found a bit of mountain where he suspected a church might be buried, and said to his workers, “There it is! Dig it out, please.” As a side note, there are no clear records of how many workers there were, but considering all 11 churches where excavated in 23 years, there must have been quite a few. One version of their story says that an angel came down to help the workers, and that one of the churches was in fact carved out in a single day…but I prefer to be impressed by the fact that it was the work of man that created these incredible structures.

House of St. George and the Ethiopian landscape

We spent most of the day visiting the remaining 10 churches, and they were all amazing. My favourite was the House of St. George, which was a monolithic church carved down into the stone overlooking one of the surrounding valleys. It is perhaps the most recognizable of the churches, and some of you might have seen photos of it before. It’s cruciform shape stands in stark contrast to the natural contours of the landscape around it, yet its slightly off-level roof and tilted horizontal lines reveal it to be absolutely created from that same ground. Pretty incredible stuff.

Climbing through underground passages

After touring the rock-hewn churches all day, we decided to relax and enjoy a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony down the street from our hotel. As Meg and I sat sipping our very dark, very strong coffee, we got to talking with an Ethiopian man who was working next door. His name was Fucado, and after a while he invited us to come for dinner and to drink tej with him. Tej is an Ethiopian honey-alcohol, and since we’d never tried it before, we decided to take him up on his offer. We invited Hiro, Shelagh, Suzanne, and Eric to join us, and off we went to “Torpedo Tej”!

Drinking tej in "Torpedo Tej" bar

We sat around some low table in a mud-walled building and waited for our tej to arrive. We had three choices of tej on the menu: soft, medium and strong. Our host advised us that “soft” was basically juice, and that “strong” would basically knock us out after two or three drinks. So we ordered “medium”s all ’round, and sat back to enjoy the entertainment.

Meg dancing up a storm!

There was a musician and a dancer making the rounds, and they monopolized our attention. They were doing a bit of call-and-response style improvisation with their singing, and although it was all in Amharic (the local language) we’re pretty sure they were having some fun at our expense. Basically, the dancer would come stand right in front of one of us, and the man on the stringed instrument would start singing lines which she would repeat. After three or four lines, everyone around us would burst out laughing and cheering, and the dancer would invite us up to dance with her. She was something else: there is a style of dance that we saw many of the locals doing the night before that involves a lot of shoulder and head movements, and she was especially good at it. Although we tried to learn from her, she generally made us all look ridiculous. But it was tons of fun anyways, and really, who are we trying to impress? So we danced and laughed and drank tej, which turned out to be surprisingly delicious, and we had one of the best nights of our travels so far. Eventually we took our leave and wandered happily back to our hotel. We have so much still to look forward to in this country, but already it’s safe to say that we love Ethiopia.

Move those shoulders


    Her moves were Byonce-esque. Amazing.

    Seems like it was pretty strong tea.

    Your moves look funky too. Great fun!

    Very interesting churches – is there any significance to the fact there are eleven?

    BTM & Mother Goose

    Our guide actually said that there were twelve churches, to represet the twelve disciples, but we only saw 11, and there are differing counts depending on who you talk to. Since not many of the churches were named after disciples, I wonder about that explanation, but you never can be sure…

    […] nearly everything we‚Äôve seen so far in our travels, and that‚Äôs saying something. It makes the Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela look like the work of amateurs. It even humbles the great Temples of Angkor Wat, and shifts the […]

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