Interior of the church carved from rock
Credit: Sue Visser

Lalibella here we come!

After departing from Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, our aeroplane flies over beautiful countryside. We see verdant fields of intensely cultivated crops forming a neat patchwork down below. When we reach the Simian Mountains the terrain becomes more arid as the altitude increases. We touch down at an isolated airport in the middle of a magnificent valley surrounded by misty mountain slopes.

We were taken to the Panoramic View Hotel and the views were indeed panoramic. A quiet, soothing landscape spread itself at our feet below the hotel balcony. A dusty road wound its way up to the top. Local farmers walked up and down this 10 km pass to market once a week, carrying firewood and merchandise. They only use donkeys for carrying heavier items such as grain. Even small children carry firewood.

The little town of Lalibella is home to the world famous churches that have been hewn out of solid rock. It is situated on top of a mountain ridge with huge rocky outcrops. The church complex is next to the market place. After walking down a small narrow path the magnificence suddenly hits you. Churches are nestled inside the domes of rock, similar to the ones we passed along the way. It is a UNESCO world heritage site. Large heavily structured canopies have been erected over a few of the churches to protect them from the ravages of weathering.

Each of the churches has a similar function and they are functional as opposed to being musty museums. It is a holy place for the congregation and Sunday services are held within the church complexes and small courtyards. The people chant with their chanting sticks and special drums are played.

Up to the cave monastery in the mountain

It was a long, steep and very rough road and we were grateful for the 4x4 vehicle that took us to the base of the mountain wherein the cave monastery had been built. Local country folk walk along these roads with their livestock, carrying heavy bundles of firewood and other commodities. This is one of the reasons that Ethiopian athletes win medals! Living at high altitudes, walking long distances and carrying heavy loads is a way of life. We saw their athletes training along the mountain passes.

Our guide took us up the final steps to the cave. It all looked so ordinary until we went inside the cave and saw the building in the middle of it. The priest posed in front of the Holy of Holies for us and showed us his chanting staff. They are kind, friendly people. He seemed to think that the twelve tribes of Israel had come to Ethiopia. Ethiopian people have distinct facial features – the big dark eyes, narrow straight noses, a slender build and an elegant charm. The church drum was demonstrated to us and the guide tapped the large and then the narrow side to show how the difference in tone and size symbolises the old versus the new testament of the Bible.

Injera and local beer for lunch with the guide’s family

On the way down from the cave, our guide stopped and invited us to the home of his aunt. She had prepared lunch for us in her humble little stone cottage. We entered the main room. The floor was covered in straw and the walls were blue. We were seated around a low table on even lower chairs. The injera was placed on the table. It is a pancake made from teff flour that has fermented in water for about five days. Teff is a member of the grass family and the seeds are tiny. I was glad that they were gluten free so I could also sample the wares. The mixture resembles a bubbly, sour pancake batter. It is poured onto a hot flat griddle to cook.

Everybody tears off a portion of the injera pancake and dips it into the red paste that is spread onto the centre. It is called berbere and is made from ground up paprika and other aromatic spices. It is mixed with oil and is surprisingly delicious with the sour dough. The beer was a cloudy looking brew made from malt, hops and honey. Although minimalistic, the fare was good and hearty as was the company. We felt very touched by the poignancy of this hospitable gesture. Everything had come from the land and was lovingly made as it had been for thousands of years.

St George’s Church is the most famous of the Lalibella group

The approach to St George’s Church is from the top of a domed rock behind the town of Lalibella. This church is the finest example of a monolithic church made from a single piece of rock. It has been formed in the shape of a cross. The interior is a bit pokey but it is adequate. You get to see the familiar altar, religious paintings (especially of Saint George) and the curtain that is in front of the sacred area known as the holy of Holies. Only the priest may enter this zone because it houses a replica of the Ark of the Covenant containing a written copy of the Ten Commandments.

Saint George is the patron saint of Ethiopia and evidently he demanded that this church be built in order to pay him homage. Legend has it that he used to ride his white horse into the church. The guides show holes cut into the side of one of the steep surrounding walls and claim that these were made by his horse. He was a flamboyant character and seems to be a blend of the Ancient legend of Perseus who saved the maidens from being devoured by a man eating dragon. They believe to this day that their patron saint it the one who slayed the dragon and saved the maidens.

We also paid homage to Saint George – every time we raised a glass of St George beer! We preferred the taste of the local Dashen beer, but were told it was unpatriotic to drink any other brand of beer in Ethiopia! So cheers and I hope you enjoy watching our movie. It tells the story better than I could and will help you feel right there with us!



Ethiopian Churches in Lalibella

Panoramic view from Lalibella town
Credit: Sue Visser
The monastery built inside the cave
Credit: Sue Visser
The chanting drum and staff
Credit: Sue Visser
Simean mountain region
Credit: Sue Visser
Lunch with Ethiopian country folk
Credit: Sue Visser
Inside the rock cavity
Credit: Sue Visser
The town of Lalibella
Credit: Sue Visser
UNESCO roof protects buildings
Credit: Sue Visser
The top view of St George's Church
Credit: Sue Visser