“Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?” To answer the music world’s rhetorical cri de coeur about the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s, “Yes, they did.” Furthermore, the town of Lalibela has been celebrating the holiday in its rock-hewn churches for over 800 years.
While the Europeans were building their cathedrals to scrape the heavens, the Abyssinians we’re actually carving out their churches from below. And unlike most ancient religious structures that remain in the world, theserock-hewn churches are very much alive with the banging of drums, the wafting of Frankincense, and choral chanting and counter-chanting.
In the second holiest city in Ethiopia (after Aksum), you will find no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny, but you will find a flourishing small town free of famine, as it has been for decades, and a people eager to show off one of Africa’s and UNESCO’s most sacred treasures.
1. Bet Giyorgis [Church of Saint George]
By far the most celebrated of the town’s eleven churches, Bet Giyorgis is also the only one that is cruciform in shape. King Lalibela’s architectural swansong is reached by an underground tunnel, which does double duty as a drainage system, making passage in heavy rains particularly treacherous. The church’s interior is deceivingly small due to the thickness of the walls necessary to support the two-story solid-rock structure. To accommodate parishioners, services are conducted both inside as well as around the church on the subterranean level.
2. Bet Medhane Alem [Savior of the World]
Housing the famous fifteen-pound gold cross of Lalibela under its seventy-two pillars is the largest monolithic church in the world. Its interior, it should be noted, is also the most impressive of the lot. There is no finer place in Ethiopia to witness ancient rituals that have gone virtually unchanged since Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) became a Christian nation in the fourth century. Candlelit Easter services begin here late on the preceding Saturday at nightfall and last until early Easter morning, which the highest holiday in the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar.
3. Askalech Tej Bet [“Torpedo”]
Tej lovers will be surprised to learn that this alcoholic honey beverage is not offered in restaurants in Ethiopia; rather one goes to tej bets [honey wine houses] to imbibe in the local flavor. Torpedo, as it’s know around town, is a traditional tej bet that makes its own potent wine in varying degrees of strength. The décor is comfortable and authentic and is generally a mix of locals and travelers. (Ask your hotel for directions)
4. Seven Olives Hotel*
This is a great place to start your day with an Ethiopian macchiato, or to end it or a glass of wine al fresco. Traditional fare is served on the tiered rambling terraces overlooking the town while cawing ravens swoop overhead. The interior restaurant is perfect for large groups, and traditional coffee ceremonies take place daily. Nighttime temperatures in Lalibela can turn downright cold, and cozying up to the bonfire on the terrace is a great place to meet fellow travelers, or when we were there: one of Emperor Haile Selassie’s former Cabinet ministers who conducted a riveting fireside chat. *We would like to state for the record that as of January 2012, the hotel is under new management; we strongly recommend considering other options for lodging, both for your comfort and safety. The terrace for lunch or dinner, however, is still a wonderful place. (SevenOlivesHotel.com)
5. Lalibela Hudad Ecolodge
When people think of Africa, this is what they imagine: sweeping views, roaming (and leaping and flying) wildlife, and warm native hospitality. Intentionally rustic, the luxury ecolodge, is a collaborative effort between an Italian architect and a gregarious Lalibela native.
While most visitors arrive by donkey, some ambitious hikers trek up to the 10,000-foot-high plateau’d resort, but at least they can enjoy a foot massage once they’ve leveled off. The well-stocked bar affords panoramic views that have not changed since the dawn of time, and whether you’re in the mood for contemplative solitude under the star-filled African sky, or singing around a campfire with the locals, this is your place. Water is brought up from the town and heated for bathing upon request, and while there is no electricity, your iPhones and laptops can be charged by solar power — but really the whole purpose of Lalibela Hudad is to turn it all off, and to tune in.
Yes, the views are breathtaking, the beds are the best in Ethiopia, and the feeling of being completely removed from the world is rejuvenating, but it’s the hospitality and kindness of Mesfin and his staff that make a visit to Lalibela Hudad an experience you’ll treasure all your life. We think the following quote from Maya Angelou best sums up our visit, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” (lalibelahudad.com)
Note: We generally prefer to read a great deal before traveling and guide ourselves. In Lalibela, however, we decided to hire a guide to see the eleven churches. I cannot imagine all the things we never would have learned, or experienced, had it not been for our guide, Mas.
Many children and touts will descend, offering tours the second you arrive in town, but if you hire them prepare to spend twice and much and learn nothing. (As a matter of fact, we corrected a phony guide dispensing falsehoods in front of his German tourists. ) Mas is an official guide who is passionate, incredibly knowledgeable, and fun to be with; we highly recommend his services. (Please visit Mas’s website for more information – Click Here)
Addendum: It’s been two years since I visited Ethiopia and I still have contact with many of the wonderful people whom I met there. Yesterday Mas sent me some photos of his wedding and I thought we’d share one of them with you. Congratulations to Mas and his beautiful bride!
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- Stay in Lalibela | May 17, 2012