My Ethiopian Adventure–Lalibela, Part One


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.


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.




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.


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.


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: There are many more books in the Orthodox Bible than in those used by European and American churches.


My Ethiopian Adventure–on the Road to Lalibela, Part One

Although the Sunny Side Hotel’s rooms in Kombolcha seem elemental to say the least, the food there is some of the best I had in Ethiopia.  One of the reasons for this may be their extensive gardens which not only hold flowers, but vegetables and fruit trees.



That’s a papaya in the middle.



Dinner consisted of fresh talapia–Lake Tana is full of talapia and is a common item on menus, perfectly grilled, julienned vegetables sautéed in sunflower oil and seasoned with a sprig of rosemary.  The next morning we headed for Lalibela.  The first larger city through which we drove is Dese.  As in most Ethiopian cities, new construction could be seen everywhere.  They do not use steel for scaffolding.  They use eucalyptus as in this building.



We continually climbed switched back roads.  Usually, terraced fields lay as far as we could see on the mountainsides.




Not too far from Dese, we came to the smaller town of Hayk.  Hayk is the Amharic word for lake.  The town is named after this nearby lake.


Seven species of acacia grow in Ethiopia.  These, higher in the mountains, appear considerably more lush than those farther south in semi arid places. You cannot swim in this lake because, like many bodies of water in Africa, the schistosomiasis parasite lives here.  There is a cure, but not very pleasant.  Huge fig trees and acacias provide a setting like one sees in movies.




This monastery resides on a small peninsula that juts out into the lake.  The sign says no women allowed.  Foreign male visitors may enter for a fee–locals free. Lush fields surround the lake.



Yes, that is cactus on the right–not exactly a place I expected to see cactus.  On the road out of the lake, we saw this girl walking and asked to take her photo.  She is carrying dried dung.  Houses are first framed in eucalyptus and then plastered with a mixture of dung and mud or just mud.  Sometimes they are left the natural dark brown color.  Some home owners prefer to paint them bright colors.



This is a typical house in most areas left unpainted with a metal roof.  Everywhere people worked the fields the “old” way with a beautiful result.



We passed villages and towns of all sizes.


And always children as well as adults drove animals along the road.




Eighty languages are spoken in Ethiopia.  Some, like Amharic and Oromo, are spoken my millions, others by only a particular small tribe. Everywhere we went people knew Amharic, an Afro-Asian, Semitic language (like Arabic and Hebrew) which originates in the ancient language of Geez, a language now only used as the sacred language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  English is taught in elementary school, which is compulsory through the eighth grade.  Because of too many students and too few schools and teachers, especially in rural areas, school is half a day.  One group goes in the morning and another in the afternoon.