My Ethiopian Adventure–Lalibela, the Churches, Part Three

After we left the first group of churches, we had to walk to reach the one that is probably the most photographed.


Like all these churches, this one, Bet Emanuel, was carved and dug out of solid rock and is built so that the top is level with the slope of the land.  Thus, it is purposefully nearly invisible unless you are quite close to it.  To get to the bottom and go inside you have to climb down rather steep steps. Built in the Auxumite style (Auxum was the original “capital” of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church), some art historians consider it to be the most impressive church in Lalibela.  It is 18 meters by 18 by 12 (58.5 feet by 58.5 by 39).


The guide explained that because this church is of harder stone, it has no protective cover like some of the first churches we entered.


Like the first group of churches, this one also has a drainage trench around it.


A pool of holy water–I saw a boy go up to one of the pools and fill a bottle with water.


A holy space where only priests can enter.  Every church has a copy of the Ark of the Covenant and a symbolic Bethlehem.


Saint George and the Dragon appear everywhere. Saint George is the national saint of Ethiopia. There is even St. George beer.


In this second group of buildings, two were definitely designed as churches.  However, even though others are currently used as churches, there is some question as to whether that was their original purpose.  The guide told us that one building is believed to have been the residence of King Lalibela and his family.  Unlike most of the other buildings, its layout does not appear to have been designed as a church. It also does not contain the usual paintings and artwork.


Another sacred space. Before we could go on to see the other churches in this group, we had to climb out and walk by the River Jordan.


All the trenches that drain water from the churches during the rainy season flow into this River Jordan.  The design of the churches, the symbolism, this River Jordan, everything was designed to duplicate to the extent possible he Holy Land, to create another Holy Land in the highlands of Ethiopia, a new Jerusalem.


The road by the River Jordan.  Until recently people lived in the traditional houses you see on the right.  In front of one we saw a group of young men being trained as priests.


The land near the churches looks just like anywhere.  You cannot see the churches until you are really close to them.  We were told they were built this way intentionally to protect them from invaders who had destroyed earlier visible churches.


On both sides of the River Jordan are cemeteries. The dead from the tombs in the walls opposite the churches (see Part I and II) were moved here.


Unlike the first group of churches shown in Part I, not all the churches in the second group are connected by trenches or so close together.To see some of them you have to climb in and out from one to another.



The guide took this photo.  Why am I wearing my socks over my jeans?  Fleas.  It is common knowledge that the carpets and bamboo mats on the floors of the churches contain lots of fleas.  We were told to tuck our jeans inside our socks and spray everything below our knees with insect spray.



Between this latter group of churches, there are some passageways so you do not always have to climb in and out.  There is a third type of church in this area, churches built in caves, one of which is 40 kilometers from Lalibela.  Churches such as these exist nowhere else in the world. The only way in and out of Lalibela is that steep road below my hotel room.


It was drier around Lalibela because the rains were late. We headed to the cave church of Yemrehanna Krestos for the afternoon.



One disadvantage of traveling to Ethiopia this time of year, especially in the north, is the weather, cold and rainy.  On the positive side, often we were the only tourists.


The climb up to the church was long and a bit steep but with good steps and handrails.  Rain had made the stones a bit slippery.  The churches have served an unintentional good in that around most churches in the country the original forest is left to hide the church.  This was one of a few places where we could see what the land looked like before deforestation and before invasive species were brought in from elsewhere.


The guide who took us through the churches in Lalibela came with us here.  I walked with him and Dino and Zuriash walked with the priest who did not speak English.


This is what you see when you first arrive at the top.  Like in all the churches, you have to take your shoes off.


An entire church resides inside the cave.  We were told that the white marble and wood were brought from Egypt by elephants. The church dates to the 11th century.


The cave is big with lots of space around the church.





The decor and carvings inside the church are very detailed and elaborate.  Services are held here weekly and at certain times of the year many pilgrims journey here some walking for many miles.


The priest who resides in the village.  This is “his” church.


Behind this fence at the back of the cave lay the bones of pilgrims who died here.


The Ethiopians believe that one of the Three Wise Men came from Ethiopia.


The tomb of Yemrehanna Krestos resides behind the church inside the cave.


The road to this church is relatively new.  Before pilgrims had to either walk or ride a horse or donkey to get here.  The road continues above the village, but we turned around and headed back to Lalibela.


There were two shops in the village that sold sacred objects and souvenirs.  I bought this cross which has St. George and the Dragon on one side and the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus on the other.  Mary is exceedingly important in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.


I like to bargain and generally did quite well with it when purchasing various items.  However, the man in this shop for this particular item refused to come down.  I really wanted it because it seemed quite unique so bought it at his price.  Nowhere else did I have to do that.

On the road back to Lalibela we decided to stop and admire a couple of huge fig trees.



My Ethiopian Adventure–Lalibela, Part Two–the Monolithic Churches


This is the first of the monolithic churches we visited.  Because the churches were built from the top down and actually cannot be seen until you are very near them, you have to climb down a lot of steps to get to the bottom level from which you can enter into the interior.  The “trenches” around them are the same depth as the churches are high because they were carved out of the solid stone.  As you look at these photos, you will notice multiple cross designs, including Greek, the type found in Axum, those referred to as Lalibela.  Every carving, every painting, every design possesses an explicit symbolic meaning.  I wish I had been able to record all the information provided by the guide.  This church, Bet Medhane Alem, is the largest of this type.  It’s approximate size is 33.7 meters  by 23.7 meters with a height of 11.5 meters (109.5 feet by 77 feet with a height of 37.4).  All sides have columns.




These churches are not mere tourist attractions.  We saw many people walking around, praying, and worshipping.  Services are still held here.  Carved into some of the “trench” walls opposite the church are tombs.  Those buried in these tombs have been removed and their graves now lie on either side of the River Jordan–photos of that later.


The interior decoration includes detailed carvings, elaborate drapes, and paintings.


Certain areas, like this one behind the drapes, only priests can access, mainly because they contain the sacraments.  The floors of all the churches are hard rock so all contain coverings of cloth, Persian type rugs, and bamboo.  Accessing the interior requires a lot of climbing up and down very worn, slick, stone steps.


While smaller trenches and areas separate this first group of churches from each other, the entire group is surrounded by the deepest, large trench.  This is the next church we visited.  It lacks outside columns.


At first the sight of swastikas everywhere startled me until I remembered how old these churches are and the original meanings attached to this symbol.  Our deacon guide explained that they symbolize everlasting life (the circle of life) and also mentioned its meaning in ancient Hinduism–the continual, everlasting cycle of birth and rebirth.


This is the fertility pool.  It is so deep that the priest must be lowered into the water attached to ropes as are the man or woman who wants treatment in this holy water.  At one point, someone realized that the pool was no longer as deep as it was originally.  When they investigated, they found the pool had been filled with dirt below where it could be seen.  When this dirt was excavated, a cache of ancient, holy artifacts were found.  They had been buried there to protect them.



Ethiopians wrap themselves in white not just to go to church, but in general.  I constantly marveled how they keep these garments so incredibly white in spite of dirt and rain and walking through mud everywhere.  The person on the right is our guide, a deacon in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  He knows the meaning of every carving, every painting, every symbol.  The extent of information explained was not only detailed but extensive.


Only some of the churches possess paintings on the walls as well as carvings.  The wise men, Mary, everyone looks Ethiopian at least to some extent.


Notice the Star of David.  This symbol is everywhere because the Ethiopians believe they are descendants of Solomon and Sheba.  As a consequence, the paintings, carvings, all the symbols reflect not only the New Testament but also the Old Testament.


Every church has this curtain behind which only a priest can go.  Every church has a copy of the Ark of the Covenant.  They believe the original was taken by Menelik I, the son of Solomon and Sheba, to its current location in Axum in a special treasury next to the Church of Saint Mary of Zion.  It has been safely kept there through the millennia.





Protective roofs cover some of the churches.  The guide explained that the hardness of the basalt varies.  Because some of the stone is softer, churches carved out of this softer stone had begun to deteriorate.  The coverings protect and preserve them.


To get from church to church in this first group of churches, usually we walked through these trenches.  To reach the actual church entrances requires climbing up steps.  These trenches enable water drainage into the River Jordan during the rainy season.  The floor of the churches remain above the water.


Walking through these churches kept me in a constant state of awe.  They were built more than 800 years ago without modern tools.  And there are eleven of them all here, carved out of solid stone.


St. George and the Dragon hold a prominent place in Ethiopian Orthodox symbolism.  The dragon represents paganism.  St. George slated the dragon.




We left this  group of churches, climbing out from this trench and headed to one of the most photographed.


We encountered two walking funeral processions complete with chanting.  I took no photos because it seemed disrespectful.



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.