The next morning we were up and out early to see the second cluster of churches. Although these were carved out at the same time as the churches in the other group, the stone here is a softer type and so it is more worn-looking.
The churches have bells now, but in ancient times they used a rock to announce the service. Danel demonstrates.
All of the churches were originally connected through a complex system of underground tunnels. Many of these have collapsed but Danel led us through a couple of them. It is pitch black in the tunnels. The experience of walking through is meant to represent purgatory so no lights are allowed.
After seeing the second group of churches we walked through a nunnery, a row of cells in tukuls along a narrow dirt alley near the churches.
Then we headed down the cobblestone hill to the Saturday market.
After the market we marched back up the hill again to the Seven Olives restaurant.
There are many more monasteries and rock churches in the region but most are remote trekking destinations with no roads. There are a couple within day-trip distance of Lalibela, and we hired a van to take us to one of them – the Monastery of Yemrehanna Kristos.
To say that the road up the hill is rough and rocky would be a massive understatement. The trip, more than 2 hours in each direction along an unpaved and occasionally precipitous mountain road, left several of us with bruises and bumps from hitting our heads and arms on the inside of the vehicle. Alekka had taken this same route with her class in the spring, and she tried to engage us with a singalong. Alas, the cranky adults were not in a singing mood.
Truth be told, I enjoyed the ride. The scenery was gorgeous and I sat by an open window; the main thing I was worried about was hitting a pothole and dropping the camera.
The monastery is in a basalt cave. It is a couple of hundred years older than the rock-hewn Lalibela churches. This one is built in the Axumite style, which means it is layers of alternating wood and rock. The rock layers are faced with flat pieces of stone. The inside is decorated with designs in wood, brightly painted (not so bright a thousand years later, but you get the idea.)
Looking at an old guidebook I learn that in 2002 the trip was 6 hours each direction on foot and by mule from Lalibela, so I suppose we should all be grateful. And in the end everyone agreed it was worth it, even if getting there wasn’t quite half the fun.