Lalibela is a must see when in Ethiopia. I have never been in a village that resembled Lalibela; it was beautiful and breathtaking. The town itself was a mountainside, Bible-times looking town, except there were a lot of foreigners around you. Everywhere you look there are breathtaking views. You can spend a whole weekend just hiking, walking around the village, and exploring, but I recommend you tour the rock-hewn churches. They are truly a wonder, and their history (especially if you know some biblical history) is beyond interesting.
These are sites from in and out of the rock-hewn churches in Lalibela. There are 11 of these churches that King Lalibela had built. The story goes, King Lalibela created these churches with the guidance of an angel and the spiritual approval of Jesus, so that Ethiopians and others in the area can make a pilgrimage to this site rather than the further Israel. These churches are truly a wonder; they are intricately made between the 12-15th centuries!
Before we began our tour, our tour guide made an important point. He said that while Europe was in the dark ages, where there was little to no technological advances and no socio-cultural progression, Ethiopia was building these large structures and advancing it’s technology in engineering and architecture. This was an incredible statement that put Ethiopia’s history into perspective. Throughout IR we assume Europe lead the way in every major field, and we neglect the histories, advances and contributions of other countries. Being in Lalibela and learning of these churches you are reminded that the world was moving when Europe wasn’t.
In many of these churches there are different types of crosses from around the world etched into these edifices. We were told that King Lalibela toured the world throughout his rein, including to Asia. He brought back spirituality from many different cultures and incorporated it into these churches. For example, one of his churches showcases the Greek cross, cross of Lalibela, as well as a Swastika, which he included to honor Hindu spirituality.
When I heard of this I was in awe of the progressive thinking that King Lalibela had; though he was a Christian, and a devout one at that, he was able to see the spirituality and truths within many different religions. Today religion is attributed to dividing and conquering; it was and is the cause of many wars and violence. However, it is imperative that we look into history and see that religion and spirituality isn’t and wasn’t like this always. It is particularly imperative that non-western countries recognize this about their histories. Non-western countries are orientalized to be seen as barbaric and violent through their religion and culture, but as King Lalibela demonstrated in the 12th century, this is not so. Non-Western countries lived in peace with each other, and revered each other’s differences in culture and religion for years and years.
This also speaks to a larger culture of Ethiopia. Time and time again, many Ethiopians have told me that within the country there is no animosity between Muslims and Christians; that they live peacefully together. This sentiment is seen throughout Ethiopian culture. In some areas, such as the Wollo region, Muslim and Christian people marry and it is seen as a norm! We recently learned that the traditional Ethiopian instrument, the Masinko, is shaped with a cross and a crescent moon to symbolize the comradely between Muslims and Christians.
I do not want to generalize the sentiment, or paint an overly idealistic relationship between the two religions in Ethiopia, but I will say to the people I have spoken about this they tell me Muslims and Christians here see each other as friends and family under the state of Ethiopia, and I have not heard otherwise yet. While the news portrays Muslims as barbarians looking to proliferate violence, Ethiopia exemplifies the falsity of this generalization. Muslims, Christians and other religions have been living together in peace for years all over the world, and even have been revering each other’s culture and spirituality.
King Lalibela’s incorporation of Ethiopian culture in these churches will enlighten you on a form of religion that is almost never spoken of today. Maybe the West can take some pointers.
The second day of our trip we had the choice between seeing Monte Christos church or to go hiking. The Monte Christos Church tour was 70USD, and the hike was 10USD. Since we are broke grad students, we took the cheaper rout. I would HIGHLY recommend the hike!
We hiked about 14K, and were at a height of 3000-4000 meters. I know I keep using the word “breathtaking” to describe the views, but I can’t think of another word to describe the beauty and awe that you feel and see when you are walking up this mountain. There were many terrains we walked through to get to the top, including grasslands, woods, rocky terrains, cave-tunnels and cliff-sides. Because there was such a diverse amount of terrains we were able to see natural sites that were very different from the last site we saw while hiking.
I was a little slow on this hike (this is the highest I have ever hiked, so getting acclimated to the oxygen levels was tough), but the hike is a great exercise and will make your body feel great. For those who really can’t walk to the top, mules are provided if you request them. The mules however don’t take you on the same trail that you are on while walking, so I would suggest you tough it (if you can) out and walk the way up.
This hike and its views in itself were a spiritual experience!
Of course we made it a point to go to the local Azmari Bet in Lalibela. This Azmari Bet was different from the ones in Addis; it was a lot smaller, and there was no stage. The Masinko player and singer would walk around the overcrowded bar and sing and engage with the patrons directly. There was back and forth poetry/song-conversations between the performers and the patrons, that were not understood by me, but seemed to be hilarious to everyone else. The Azmari Bet was so cozy and interactive, you really feel immersed in Lalibela’s culture while you are here.
Lalibela is known for their honey. “Lalibela” itself means the man of honey. Breakfast every day included toasted Dabo (bread) with butter and honey. It was DELICIOUS! The dabo and honey was always the first gone when we had received our meals. In addition to the regular honey, Lalibela creates their own Tej (homemade honey wine), that is unlike the ones I have tried in Addis. At the Azmari Bet we were able to taste-test three kinds of Tej, with different sweetness and alcohol content. Each were delicious!
As you can see by my photos above, I loved my time in Lalibela and definitely would recommend foreigners to spend a weekend here. One thing that I would keep in mind while being here is that many Ethiopians do not get a chance to travel to Lalibela. Because travel is expensive, so many Ethiopian people have not had the chance to visit this beautiful area.
Not only is Lalibela a spiritual, mental and physical trip but it should also be seen as a privilege, an extremely special opportunity, that we foreigners can experience.
Before I end: shout out to our great tour guide Habtamu, who works at the Sora Lodge! It is a little expensive, but I would highly recommend staying at the Sora Lodge and having Habtamu as your guide! The lodge had great mountainside views all around, the rooms were clean and beautiful with huge windows and a balcony overlooking the mountains, and breakfast is included!
Lalibela itself as well as it’s historical sites, spiritual sites, and it’s local restaurants, stores and bars have a lot of history that you would not learn unless you had a guide, so I highly, HIGHLY recommend getting one.
Habtamu will walk you through the churches giving you brief history, hike with you, take you to restaurants and the Azmari Bet, and dance with you! He is knowledgeable, funny and also an extremely kind-hearted and a great guide!