Lalibela: Ethiopia’s ancient jewel

For an agnostic I’ve certainly been to a lot of holy places.

I’ve always been skeptical of received wisdom, and fascinated that so many people dedicate their lives to a deity they can’t see, can’t prove exists, and who has left them in the lurch on more than one occasion. I’m also fascinated that this strange behavior called religion often makes people better people, and just as often is used to justify appalling crimes. Nor am I impressed by atheists who claim to “know” there is nothing higher, since that’s unprovable too.

So when I travel I always end up at the holy places–camping among the 70 million pilgrims at Kumbh Mela, or sitting with sadhus at the burning ghats in Benares, or discussing Islam in the shady courtyard of a mosque in Isfahan, or climbing up a dubious-looking rope to reach the clifftop monastery of Debre Damo.

One of my friends, a devout Catholic who likes to debate theology as we go on pub crawls, is convinced my interest in religion means I’m going to convert. I could tell him that devoting his academic life to studying the works of Samuel Beckett means he’s going to become a nihilist, but that hardly seems sporting.

I wish he’d been along for my visit to Lalibela, because not only is the town a monument to Ethiopia’s faith in God, but it also brews the country’s best tej. We would have had a hell of a metaphysical boozer.

Lalibela is off the main highway and reached after many miles bouncing along ass-punishing dirt roads. It is here, starting in the 12th century, that a series of churches were dug out the bedrock. This construction-in-reverse was the brainchild of Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, a king of the Zagwe dynasty. The eleven churches he dug here were meant to be a New Jerusalem, in response to the Muslims capturing Jerusalem and making it difficult for Christian pilgrims to visit. The river flowing through Lalibela is called the River Jordan and a pilgrim can visit the Ethiopian version of Bethleham, Golgotha, and the Holy Sepulchre.

The most grand is Biet Medhane Alem, the largest rock-hewn church in the world. It’s a massive block of stone with 72 towering pillars symbolizing the 72 disciples of Christ. A stone passage leads to Biet Mariam, possibly the first to be built and easily my favorite. As our eyes adjust to the dim interior we see 800 year-old frescoes decorating the walls and ceiling. They show scenes from the Bible and their rich colors blend with the shadows to create a soothing, otherworldly effect.

%Gallery-90277%The most famous of the churches, the one seen in all the tourist brochures, is Biet Giyorgis. It blends with the surrounding stone even while standing out and dazzling the eye. It’s retained the same color as the surrounding rock–none of the churches are painted on the outside–and the builders cleverly left the roof pitching at the same angle as the rest of the slope, making the church seem like a natural part of the ground. At twelve meters high, it is the highest (or I should say deepest) of Lalibela’s churches.

At each of the churches a priest will come out on cue, bearing an elaborate medieval silver cross and wearing his colorful raiment. While this makes for great photos, I feel it cheapens the place somewhat, a bit like the monks trotting out illuminated manuscripts at the monasteries on Lake Tana. Still, it’s their choice how they respond to tourism, and tourist money helps maintain the churches and monastic libraries.

Lalibela is one of the most touristy places in Ethiopia. Touts and self-appointed guides abound. While this is nowhere near as annoying as the situation at the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal, it can still be hard to find a decent guide. If you already have a driver, like we hired from Abey Roads, he can find you a reliable local guide. We went with Taye Abebe, who was knowledgeable, spoke good English, and took me to extra places for no additional charge simply because he knew I was interested. He can be contacted at taye_lalibela@

On the second day of our visit, Taye takes me to a predawn mass. I leave my wife asleep in the hotel, skip breakfast, and go with him through the darkened town to Beit Gabriel. It’s Gabriel’s holy day today. Because of the steep incline of the original slope one wall of the church seems to soar to the sky. The Ethiopians call it the “Stairway to Heaven”. We cross a narrow stone bridge, with a sheer drop several meters down on either side, and enter the packed interior.

Inside, the rough stone walls are aglow with the light of candles, and resonate with the sound of chanting. Everyone is wearing white, from the aged priests leading the service to the village women leaning wearily against the pillars, exhausted from having spent the night in prayer. We stand next to a religious class of sleepy-eyed kids who take turns reading aloud from a holy book written in Ge’ez. None of them take the slightest notice of me, the only foreigner in the room. Instead they concentrate on puzzling through the ancient liturgical language.

The head priest comes out of the holy of holies bearing an elegant silver cross. One by one the faithful go up to him and kiss it, and he rubs it along their bodies to give them a blessing. We stay and watch as the sun rises and beams its first golden light into the interior. At last we go, but the priests and townsfolk and pilgrims stay. They’ve been praying all night, and they’ll pray all day too.

For the rest of the day I wander around more of Lalibela’s churches, amazed that people can be so sure of something they can’t prove that they’d dig out more than a dozen buildings from solid rock. I’ve met atheists who sneer at such feats, saying it’s a means of social control, a waste of money and effort to worship something that doesn’t exist. But that’s missing the point. People need these festivals and rituals and grand monuments. It takes them out of their day-to-day life and shows them something higher. Even a religion hater like atheist author Sam Harris says spirituality is an important part of life. And that’s what these places provide, even for a cynic like me. Because every now and then, you need to feel that rarest of emotions–awe.

And you don’t have to believe in God to figure that out.

Next time: Addis Ababa: Ethiopia’s New Flower.

Check out the rest of my travel articles about Ethiopia.