The old, rugged, milk colour Peugeot 404 saloon car was parked at the parking lot of the Lalibela Airport, Ethiopia.  It was the first thing that caught one’s attention on leaving the arrival lounge of the airport. Looking around, the austere, semi-arid vast land blended perfectly with the old car. In fact, the car was a kind of metaphor that captured the essence of this ancient religious city, one of the most visited cities of Ethiopia. Here, it is more of the spiritual than the physical. The flesh and its needs count for little. 

From the airport, a road winds through the Lasta Mountains leading to the ancient city. But half way, on top of the mountain, the driver stopped for tourists to come down and have a view of the vast land of Amhara ancient kingdom as it spread out.

One could see the whole terrain spread out. It is like savannah vegetation but what looked like grasses were actually tiff farms. Tiffs are the tiny grains used to make Ethiopia’s national food, Njira. 

Ethiopia has a rich history and the kingdom dates thousands of years back. As such it is rich in ancient edifices and monuments. One of the towns where these monuments could be seen is Lalibela. The town is a religious town tied to the Orthodox Christianity practised by Ethiopians. In Lalibela, the history of Ethiopian as an ancient kingdom and their orthodox religion is captured.

Lalibela is a small city of about 15,000 people located in the Wollo Province of the Amhara Region of Northern Ethiopia. It is considered one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities and is the destination for pilgrimages by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and other tourists from all over the nation. It was envisioned to be a “New Jerusalem” in response to the capture of Jerusalem by the Muslims in 1187.

This ancient town was originally called Roha, and got its name from Gebra Maskal Lalibela, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1185 to 1225. He was one of the last rulers of the Ethiopian royal dynasty, the Zagwe Dynasty. According to local history Lalibela, who had visited Jerusalem before its conquest, vowed after its fall to make Roha his new capital and to ensure that it would recall the glory of old Jerusalem. He gave biblical names to many of the town’s features and encouraged architecture that followed established Christian themes. Lalibela remained the capital of Ethiopia for more than a century after the Emperor’s death.

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However, the attraction of tourists to Lalibela is to see these distinct ancient churches that have become a world heritage site.

There are 11 medieval monolithic churches in Lalibela. Ethiopia has about three major cities it refers to as Holy Cities, but Lalibela is regarded as the holiest. The other holy cities are Axum and Gondar.  Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe the Ark of the Covenant is kept somewhere in Axum. Then, there is also Gondar, where the annual Timkat Festival is held. 

These monolithic churches are distinct because they were not constructed bringing blocks or stones. They were hewn from rocks wholly. The construction of the monolithic churches in Lalibela is dated somewhere between the 1150s and the 1170s, during the reign of King Lalibela, one of the most famous rulers of Ethiopia’s Zagwe Dynasty. In fact, the ancient town of Roha, was named after King Lalibela himself upon his death.

The ancient churches are hewn from stones. According to an Ethiopian story, God instructed Lalibela to build the unique churches, and that the structures were built with the help of angels. King Lalibela, who was poisoned by his brother and fell into a three-day coma, was taken to Heaven and given a vision of a rock-hewn city. After Lalibela woke up from the coma and was crowned as a king, he gathered local handymen and started building the churches, the likes of which the world had never seen before.

There are 11 unique ancient churches all hewn out of a rock. Each of the 11 rock-hewn churches also still has its original tabot (that is a replica of the tablet of law containing the Ten Commandments) from the time of Lalibela.

Before visiting the ancient churches, the tour team had a feel of the city. There was so much poverty around, with some people begging, others  hawking different kinds of crafts to get some money from tourists.

Most of the rock-hewn churches had monks, pilgrims praying inside. Some had rock caves within the church premises where monks live. Their only worldly possession could be put in a poly bag. Visiting these ancient churches would cause one to introspect and remember that there is much more to life than chasing after the banal things.

Of all these churches, the most interesting is the Church of St. George (Bete Georgis). There are some striking features on the roof, in the form of five crosses nestled inside each other and continuously being magnified from the inside to the outside.

To get to St. Georgis Church, one had to climb about 30 metres down. This looks quite easy descending, but the ascent while coming out is very difficult as the area is thin in oxygen, making it very difficult to climb up from the church. Within the rock caves in the church premises, some had bones of monks that lived and died while living in the cave. The Church of St. George is the most well-known and last built of the 11 churches.

After the tour, and using the opportunity to offer prayers at the ancient churches, the team returned to the hotel for a cup of black Ethiopian coffee.  Here is Lalibela. Anywhere you turn, there is a beautiful woman selling coffee.