Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Churches of Lalibela

Some Ethiopians believe that the 11 rock-hewn churches in Lalibela were created entirely by God, others that King Lalibela was empowered by God to carve them on his own in only 23 years, and then there are the historians who believe that they took close to a century and 40,000 workers to complete.  Any way you look at it, the churches are absolutely remarkable. 

These churches have many similarities to the ones we saw in Tigray, especially the inside design.  All have the typical Axumite arches with supporting pillars, but these churches lacked the paintings on the inside that were very common in Tigray.  However, the churches in Lalibela were much more striking to me, as you could stand on a giant granite precipice and look down at a church that was carved where there used to be only mountain.  Our guide said the churches were carved from the top down on the outside and then from the bottom up on the insides, which makes sense.  The outsides of the churches were smoothed down in most places but on some of the inside walls the marks from hammer and chisel were quite visible and added to how impressive these structures really were.

There are two clusters of churches in close proximity to one another and then St. George’s Church stood by itself nearby.  There were tunnels and passageways connecting the churches within the clusters, the longest one being 27 m long.  We had a guide the first day which was instrumental to finding all of the passageways.  He was very informative and gave an enjoyable tour.

This shows the top of the columns and arches typical of the Axumite style seen in all the churches.

I forget the name of this one, but you can see the rock wall on the front left where the church was originally carved out of.  The scaffolding on top is from UNESCO to protect the church from erosion.

St. George Church.  Visually my favorite.  It's an eye-catching cross shape and you can clearly see how it was carved out of the mountain.

St. George Church

Example of one of the tunnels or carved passageways.

I also forget the name of this one, but it was one of the more visually stunning.

Lalibela was a good stop overall.  We had heard warnings from other travelers about being followed for blocks by begging kids, but it wasn’t that bad for us.  It was actually much easier and had fewer hassles than seeing the churches in Tigray, which was a welcome change.

After spending two days seeing the churches we actually parted company for a few days for the first time on the trip.  Anne wanted to go on an overnight hike to the top of the escarpment, but I wasn’t feeling well and wanted some downtime. However, as lovely as Lalibela, was I didn’t want it there.  I ended up changing my flight to Addis Ababa and left two days early where I hung out in the city enjoying good food and good company (Marie, the French woman we befriended was also there), and good internet access where I started looking for jobs in earnest.  I will let Anne talk about her hike:

Looming above Lalibela is a farm-covered escarpment. And by farm-covered I mean they plowed and harvested areas that could almost be called cliffs. It was insane. The hike up to the lovely round huts of the community camp was easy and straight forward until the very end. The guides think that white folk are crazy and enjoy scrambling up near-vertical rock beds in a crack in the cliff. I’m pleased to report that even though the area fell profoundly into the “steep slippery things” category, I wasn’t scared and just climbed up. The extraneous city boy guide I was required to take was freaked out. The next day we took the easy route down.

It was nice to be out walking after days in the car. It was nice to sit and enjoy views while just listening to music and reading. And it was nice to try to burst a conceited Ethiopian guy’s bubble about how easy his life will be if he wins the green card lottery for the States. I know, it sounds cruel, but he just had no idea about how good he had it as a wealthy Ethiopian (who looked down on the “peasants” he worked with everyday as a guide) compared to what it would be like as a poor immigrant in the U.S. who would likely be the victim of the same discrimination he tended to dish out. Seriously, the U.S. needs to start an ad campaign that basically says “We aren’t all movie stars.” and shows people being denied medical care or living on the streets.
But I digress. Hike was nice. Lalibela is pretty. Ethiopia definitely grew on me.

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