My Ethiopian Adventure–Lalibela, Part One


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The final climb to Lalibela nearly terrified me–switchbacks up and up, no guard rails as I recall, and drop-offs more than a thousand feet.  This photo, taken from my hotel room patio, fails to really show just how far down the drop really is.  The other buildings in the photo are also hotels.  Having been told that only one really good restaurant exists there, we ate at the same place two evenings.  It rests at the end of a narrow unpaved road at the edge of a cliff.

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The second evening there, we met the owner, an older woman from Scotland who originally came to Lalibela at the request of a friend to teach.  She stayed, bought this land, and hired two young architects from Addis to design the restaurant–to look like a flower.

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To get to this restaurant from the hotel, Alemu had to turn the corner as tightly as he could, backup a bit, and then proceed on this road.  Immediately below where we backed up,  there is a steep cliff.  I asked him if anyone ever fell off. He said a friend of his did.  I assumed he had died, but no, his vehicle was caught by a tiny ledge and he survived.

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The road up to Lalibela as viewed from my hotel patio.  We stayed at the Maribela Hotel which was one of the nicest on the road trip.  They were still building a restaurant but served an excellent breakfast.

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Lalibela is to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church what Jerusalem is to Jews and many western Christians.  It is famous for its eleven churches carved from solid rock.  It has been called the New Jerusalem, a New Golgotha.  In approximately 1200 AD, King Lalibela, one of the last kings of the Zagwe dynasty, came to power after God told his brother, who was king, to abdicate.  The name Lalibela comes from honey, sweetness because when a baby, King Lalibela was surrounded by bees which prophesied his future greatness.  The story becomes quite complicated but in essence, angels took his soul to heaven and showed him the churches he was to build.  They were built in twenty four years with the help of angels.  Lalibela then became the holy city.  Like the ancient rulers from Axum (the original holy city where they believe a church holds the Ark of the Covenant), the Zagwe dynasty traced their origin to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

In Lalibela two types of rock churches still stand:  rock hewn monolithic churches which were cut out of solid basalt from the top down with trenches surrounding them and rock hewn churches which were cut inward from a cliff or by using a natural cave or indentation in a cliff as a starting point.  The architectural and technical building skill required is clearly evident.  The churches are on several levels and built in such a way that they drain to carry off the heavy rain flow during the rainy season.  The trenches around the churches also serve to feed the River Jordan–an area made to duplicate the original River Jordan.  The architecture of the monolithic churches exists nowhere else in the world.

To tour the churches requires a professional guide who knows the history and architecture intimately.  Our guide held the position of deacon in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  While many Muslims live in parts of Ethiopia, Lalibela is a Christian town in a heavily Christian area.  Deacons and priests can marry, but if a male wants to become a bishop, he cannot marry.  The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, like the traditional Catholic Church with Latin, has its own ancient religious language, Ge’ez.  The alphabet of modern Amharic is the same as Ge’ez. Priests learn to read Ge’ez.  Later, in Gondar, we were able to get a priest to chant from a religious text in Ge’ez.  For more details regarding the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a list books in both the New Testament and Old Testament, as well as other sacred texts and hymnals, go to:   http://www.ethiopianorthodox.org. There are many more books in the Orthodox Bible than in those used by European and American churches.

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