We recently had a Friday off in honor of Meskal, one of the three biggest holidays (along with Christmas and Timket) on the Ethiopian religious calendar.
We spent the holiday with four other teachers on an excursion to the northern city of Lalibela.
Twenty years ago the only way to get to Lalibela was on a mule. Now there is a gravel road, but on a three-day weekend, the only practical way to get there is to fly into the new airport.
The plane made a quick stop in Gonder, one of Ethiopia’s old capitals, but we’ll have to wait for another long weekend to visit the castles there. We had 12 ancient rock-hewn churches to see.
The town of Lalibela stretches along a steep cobblestone road lined with shops and vendors.
After checking into our hotel we met our guide Danel, who our friend Eva had hired in advance.
A driver took us all up to the top of the town where the churches are. The buildings are clustered into two groups divided by the river Jordan (many features here are named after places in the Holy Land) with one more church – Bet Giyorgis, or St. George – set slightly apart.
Lalibela’s churches were built during the reign of King Lalibela at the end of the 1100s. According to Ethiopian history, all the work was done in 24 years. What is incredible about these buildings is that they were not built up or constructed, but instead were chiseled out of solid rock. The workers started chipping away at the top, carving around the emerging buildings until they were freestanding and surrounded by an empty moat.
Then they set to work hollowing out the insides, carving decorative elements into the pillars, windows, and doorways as they went.
Church legends say that angels assisted with the excavation, and I’m almost inclined to believe it.
We started with the northwest cluster, which includes Bet Medhane Alem, the largest monolithic church in the world.
Because it was the Meskal holiday (which celebrates the Queen Helena finding the true cross, the one used in the crucifixion), we were able to see parts of the Ethiopian mass outside the churches.
Some more photos from the morning:
All that tramping around the dusty church complex made us hungry. We had a long, late lunch at the Seven Olives restaurant in the town.
We finished the day with a walk to Bet Giyorgis, the church of St. George that stands apart from the others. The legend says that this church wasn’t a part of the original plan, but that when St. George got word that he wasn’t being honored at Lalibela, he showed up personally to make sure he got the finest church built in his name. It certainly is an impressive one, carved in the shape of a cross.
We had thought we’d go out to dinner but in the end we were all too exhausted. The whole group hung out in our hotel room drinking room service beer until Alekka kicked all the teachers out.