For this week’s adventure let’s journey to Lalibela, Ethiopia. In the twelfth century King Lalibela commissioned the construction of underground churches in the Ethiopian capital of Rocha, which was later renamed Lalibela in honor of the late king. These churches are special and unique because they are all hewn from the same rock below the ground surface. The compound was created to be a new Jerusalem for those who couldn’t make the long pilgrimage. This development was made so long ago, but is still beautiful today. During the day the churches are red, but at dusk they are described as glimmering gold and green. Although Lalibela seems to be a bit of an international secret it is an intriguing sight I am happy to explore.
Legend has it that angels helped build these marvelous buildings, which seems possible considering it took 40,000 workers to hand chisel these churches out of one scoria block. The whole process took 24 years; it was fortunate that King Lalibela lived 96 years so he could see the finished product. Although the main reason for the construction was to make a holy city more convenient, there was side motivation. Rocha’s rival city, Axum, was the (self-proclaimed) holder of the Ark of the Covenant and with the addition of these churches Rocha could have similar spiritual importance.
The churches are in two groups with their roofs at ground level. The churches are connected through a system of tunnels underground. There are 11 total churches, but one, Medhane Alem, is the largest monolithic rock-hewn building in the world. The churches go 40 feet deep and therefore they are relatively invisible to outsiders. The positioning of the churches serves as protection and lets people practice Christianity safely.
The real engineering amazement is that many of the churches have a water supply via wells. The workers were able to find a way to draw water up to where the city is located on the mountainside.
The churches are still in use today with daily church services. Approximately one tenth of the population of Lalibela is made up of Ethiopian Orthodox priests. They have tried to keep the complex in the same condition throughout the years. Newer buildings in the area were torn down as to not distract from the underground churches. When below the surface it is easy for people to feel like they stepped back in time.
One of the benefits of visiting Lalibela is that it isn’t overrun with tourists. When you visit you will authentically feel its greatness. To get there you can fly directly into Lalibela on Ethiopian Arlines and take a cab to the town or you can take a two-day bus ride from Addis Ababa. Visiting the churches costs about 350 birr or $19 USD. There are licensed guides from the tourism office in town for 150 birr or $8 USD. There are unlicensed guides around the town, but try to avoid them. This is a time when you are better off paying a little extra.
Maybe Lalibela will be my first visit to Africa.