Lalibela is the tourism poster child of Ethiopia. Its the place all visitors to Ethiopia visit and is not optional if it is your first time in the country. A short flight from Axum we arrived in Lalibela, found our hotel pickup and were off for a rather bumpy ride in a bus for the next 40 odd minutes. We checked in to our hotel with a wonderful balcony and that where things went a little crazy. Everyone is out to make money off tourists here and the guy who picked us up from the airport thought that with no discussion with us, that he was our guide. We told him we didn’t need him to walk with us for 5 minutes to the restaurant for lunch and we already had a guide. He seemed pissed off then but left us alone.
We walked down to the Lalibela ticket office to arrange a guide for the next day and we found one we liked, he was an official guide and passed Claire’s rigorous guide examination. However, our mate from before who believes getting to the tourists first makes him their guide, saw us with our preferred guide and had a go at him. We apologised to our guide Sami and explained he was never our guide and never even asked us to be our guide. He just latched on like a leech and hoped we’d let him come along and pay him money. More concerning was the hotel did not send him to pick us up either.
The next morning, we managed to find Sami, without encountering the leech guide. The tour of Lalibela was a long day of exploring 11 churches carved out of stone, many with hidden walkways, entrances and tunnels. We started on the first group of 6 churches all carved out of one giant piece of rock. The largest church was Bet Medhane Alem. Most of the architecture had some kind of symbolic meaning like the number and types of windows and the number of columns inside the church. All the Ethiopian churches have a secret priest only sanctuary where replicas of the Ark of the covenant are kept. The original being back in Axum in a church there.
Some of the churches in this group were really small, a few metres wide at best and all are active churches. There was however one small church that was mens only. Inside were some carved figures on the wall, but nothing vastly different to suggest why it was mens only. I took Claires camera in and she saw the photos and they didn’t burn her retinas or send her crazy, so the carved figures can’t be the reason it was mens only.
We then visited the most famous of the rock churches. St Georges church. All of these churches were built by King Lalibela and his minions (obviously). This was the last of the 11 churches built and by far the most intricate of them all. It is shaped like a cross and appears to sink into the rock from which it was carved from. The roof is carved and integrates a drain into the design. The windows and exterior are the most detailed of all the 11 churches. It is amazing to think it was carved out of one piece of rock.
After a long lunch in what appeared to be the part of Lalibela where the hotels are expensive and thus the roads were paved, we continued our tour in the last group of 4 churches. This group is where things got interesting, with bridges to cross to get into the church and tunnels and narrow walkways to get between the churches and the bakery that mand the bread for communion.
It was the long pitch black tunnel that nearly undid me though. We were told no torches or light at all. There was an alternative way if I couldn’t make it. Claire bounded into the tunnel, like a playful puppy. I just slowly took my time right hand on the right wall, left hand on the ceiling. I could hear the guide say we are almost there, look at the light, but Claire and Sami just blocked the light from me. I’ve got to say who needs an expensive rollercoaster for a thrill, just build a pitch black tunnel to walk through. It was certainly an interesting day exploring Lalibela, now its whether Lalibela can attract and support the tourists that are increasing all the time.