The rock-hewn churches of Ethiopia are solid proof that Black people have always been more than “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”
Lalibela is a village of maybe 30,000 souls, wedged into the steep, rugged mountains of northern Ethiopia. If it’s not at or near the top of your bucket list of destinations, you need to stop and re-do the list.
Now. Right now. Before you read another word. Before you take another breath. The place is that special.
It’s easy to get caught up in the history of Ethiopia. It has so much:
- The only country in Africa never to be colonized by a European power (though not for lack of trying, specifically by the Italians).
- Defeated a modern, invading European army (see the Battle of Adwa).
- A dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the most of any African country — and probably deserves more.
Further, as a travel destination, Northern Ethiopia has enough attractions to wear you out:
But if you have time to do justice to only one of these places, Lalibela should be the one — 11 of the world’s most extraordinary churches, each one carved down the equivalent of three to four stories into those same mountains some 900 years ago.
Full-fledged structures with artful supporting pillars and arches, all cut and chiseled from the inside out over the course of 23 years, by hand.
23 > 600
Compare that with the great European cathedrals, many of which took a century or more to erect (one, the Cologne Cathedral, took more than 600 years — and it wasn’t carved into solid rock).
So if you’re interested in architecture, you need to see these churches.
Unlike the great Egyptian pyramids, these aren’t abandoned relics. These are active churches of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian faith, and worshipers go there every day.
During major religious festivals like Timket and Meskel, pilgrims wearing prayer shawls of thin, white cotton may walk here over miles of stony ground — barefoot.
So if you’re interested in Ethiopian culture and Christianity, you need to see these churches.
THE SURVIVOR KING
The man who conceived these structures is also the one who gives their location its name, King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, part of the Zagwe dynasty.*
(*NOTE: For sheer drama, Shakespeare would’ve loved Ethiopian royalty. If rival rulers weren’t trying to kill you, your ambitious relatives probably were. Lalibela’s brother and uncle forced him into exile, and a half-sister tried to poison him — all before he ever took the throne.)
Many Ethiopians traveled to the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, until Muslim Arabs captured it in 1137. After that, Ethiopian Christian pilgrims trying to make the pilgrimage risked death.
The king’s solution — create his own Jerusalem. He chose the site — originally called Roha — organized the labor force and went to work, settling on the designs one by one, learning from each.
JERUSALEM TO ETHIOPIA
Once a single massive block of pink volcanic stone had been cut out from the rest of the mountain, the interior had to be carved from the top down and the inside out. One mistake and it all would come crashing down on anyone beneath.
When it was finished, Africa had its own Jerusalem. Now, Ethiopians had 11 mighty sanctuaries where they could freely and safely worship.
Almost a millennium later, they still do, walking for miles every day through the mountains, in all weather, to get here.
The most iconic of the 11 is Beit Giyorgis, St. George’s church. It was the last one built, and the most impressive. It also is the only one carved in the classic shape of a crucifix.
The UN granted Lalibela’s churches World Heritage Site status in 1978. They erected gigantic canopies over several of them to shield them from the erosion of winter rains.
A somewhat less popular UN protective move was to move scores of Lalibela residents into new, modern homes, well away from the churches. For the residents, that meant modern conveniences like running water, but a much longer –and steeper — walk to church.
HATERS GONNA DOUBT
Certain European pseudo-experts have suggested that Ethiopians could not have conceived, much less, built these structures themselves. They must have had help, their theory goes, possibly from the Knights Templar.
This fanciful notion is roundly rejected by the legitimate scientific community — and virtually every living Ethiopian.
The reality is that an Ethiopian king, a Black man, conceived these churches, chose the sites, directed the design and construction. And an army of Ethiopian craftsmen, also Black men, took his vision and made it real.
Some folks just can’t handle that idea — and they’d prefer that you not embrace it, either.
But that’s their problem.
We are descended from great people, and the seeds of their greatness remain in us, in you. In Lalibela, that fundamental truth is literally set in stone.
Which is why, if you are a Black American — or a Black anyone — you need to see these churches. Your children and your grandchildren need to see them, be inspired by them, and know that these miracles of faith and architecture are part of their DNA.
So the next time someone tries to make you feel lesser than you truly are, you won’t need to repay insult with injury. Just point them the way to Lalibela.
IF YOU GO
Getting to Lalibela means flying to Ethiopia. Several international airlines fly to the capital, Addis Ababa. The national flag carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, is Africa’s largest airline, and highly respected worldwide.
You reach Lalibela by road or air. The drive from Addis will take 13 hours to two days, and is recommended by almost no one.
The flight from Addis takes two hours, with a stop in Bahir Dar or Gondar (the return flight is non-stop.) From the airport, it’s a short, gorgeous mountain drive to Lalibela.
Hotels in Lalibela are Motel 6-basic, but if you can score a balcony room, you may not care.
The site is open daily 6 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is US$50 for adults and $25 for children ages 9-13. Your ticket is good for five days, so no need to try to see all 11 churches at once.
Get yourself in shape — and your kids’ behavior in shape — before you visit. This site is 8,500 feet above sea level, long on climbs and uneven stone steps — and short on guardrails.
A good guide can make your visit unforgettable. A bad one can ruin it. Go to the Lalibela tourist office and hire a licensed guide. They may cost you between 200-400 Ethiopian birr per day — roughly $9-18.
Tours of historic Ethiopia — including Lalibela — are available through Trips by Greg LLC. For more information, contact us as firstname.lastname@example.org