If there is one city in Ethiopia that any visitor will endeavor to see—with budget backpackers enduring the bumpy, winding 12-hour bus ride while their fellow passengers vomit and chickens cluck around their feet—it is Lalibela and its much-vaunted rock-hewn churches, claimed by some to be the unofficial eighth wonder of the world.
Each of these thirteen imposing churches—one of which is almost 50 feet tall—are precisely carved and minutely decorated even beneath the ground, amid underground galleries and open trenches, passageways and rooms, all of it excavated from the rock.
Bet Medhane Alem resembles a massive Greek temple wrought in ochre-colored stone more than a traditional Ethiopian church, and impresses with its size and majesty (“bet” means house in Amharic, and in this instance stands for church, so the full translation means the House of the Savior of the World). It claims to be the world’s largest example of a church excavated from rock—34 large rectangular columns surround Bet Medhane Alem’s giant edifice, measuring 110 by 77 feet and standing over 38 feet tall.
Meanwhile, Bet Giyorgis, the House of (Saint) George (Saint George is a far bigger deal in Ethiopia than he is in England, even though he is the patron saint of the latter; Saint George beer is Ethiopia’s most popular brand), is Lalibela’s poster child and masterpiece. Representing the rock-hewn tradition at its most bafflingly skillful, it is the most visually perfect of the churches, a fifty-foot-high, three-tiered colossus in the shape of a Greek cross—a shape and structure requiring no internal pillars, which looks both ancient and like something from a science fiction film.
But the usual reverence and spiritual tranquility pervading this beguiling location, remotely perched at an altitude of 8,600 feet in the Ethiopian highlands, cut off from the rush and hubbub that is a rapidly modernizing Ethiopia, has recently been disturbed by locals taking to the streets to protest. They object to giant shelters covering the churches—in essence vast tarpaulins mounted on giant metal pillars—to protect them from rain and sun, but which locals say are long overdue replacement by The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
They worry the screens are an eyesore for tourists—Lalibela has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978, becoming one of Ethiopia’s most popular tourist destinations and bringing much-needed revenue and employment opportunities to a town which doesn’t have another industry of note to rely on. Locals also say the screens are indicative of how conservation efforts are not being taken seriously enough to safeguard a hallowed site, known as the country’s own Jerusalem.
“I am weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more,” remarked Francisco Álvarez, a 16th-century Portuguese missionary and explorer, after being blown away by his encounter with Lalibela. “But swear I by God in Whose power I am, that all that is written is the truth, and there is much more than what I have written…”
While I understand Álvarez’s enthusiasm, after my first ever visit to Lalibela—and that hellish bus ride—I’d had mixed feelings about the place, not helped by innumerable foreign articles waffling on about the city in the same way: about what a wonder the churches are, the color of the religious festivals, seemingly blind to the fact that an endlessly fascinating country lies beyond Lalibela.
I felt it was rather overhyped. Certainly, it wasn’t hard to be impressed by churches carved from the sheer rock and the architectural fortitude on display. But set against Petra and the Pyramids, I thought a case could be made that Lalibela was, well, slightly underwhelming.
Ethiopia has one of the world’s oldest Christian traditions, stretching back to the 4th century, and is one of the world’s most religious countries
But go to the churches early, as I did my second day, thinking the softer early morning light would be better for photographs, and it’s then that you encounter the real Lalibela, the living embodiment of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC). Each “bet” is an active Christian shrine, alive with religious rites at their most ancient and, to many, bewildering. In Ethiopia any foreigner can feel out of place, and across most of the country they’re constantly reminded of it by the incessant cries of “firangi, firangi!” the Amharic word for “foreigner,” often chanted by legions of children at your heels.
I’m six feet four, and poorly designed for any sort of blending in, but that morning in Lalibela I might as well have been invisible to all the white-robed worshippers coming to offer prayers, petitions and mournful chants around the churches. Old women stood on the higher ground around the buildings clutching prayer beads in withered hands as they mouthed prayers to themselves; others descended slippery stairs, walking sticks in one hand, a relative supporting them with the other as more able-bodied Ethiopians hustled past them to and from the churches.
I bumped into the same old lady—with the same relative helping her on the same slippery stairwell—two days in a row. I can only imagine what it must be like to spend a night-time vigil at one of the churches during one of the large religious festivals, when those white-robed figures number in their hundreds.
Ethiopia has one of the world’s oldest Christian traditions, stretching back to the 4th century, and is one of the world’s most religious countries. Roughly half of Ethiopia’s population follows the EOTC, and about thirty four percent are Muslim, with the rest mostly made up of Protestants, Catholics and African animists. You won’t find many atheists in Ethiopia. Around Lalibela itself, about 99 percent of the population is Orthodox Christian. But the percentages are to a large extent irrelevant when considering Ethiopia as a whole, because it is the Ethiopian Orthodox faith that throughout history has been inextricably bound up in and shaped the Ethiopian identity. Much of this molding has involved a strong streak of Ethiopian mysticism, steeped in the story of the Queen of Sheba going to Jerusalem, and after a more than successful meeting with King Solomon returning to Ethiopia bearing his son, Menelik, the first emperor of Ethiopian’s Solomonic Dynasty (which ended with the death in 1974 of Emperor Haile Selassie). Menelik in turn visited Jerusalem and returned with the Ark of the Covenant that is now believed to reside in Axum, to the north of Lalibela. It’s all contributed to a religious fervor permeating through all ranks of society across the centuries.
Old women stood on the higher ground around the buildings clutching prayer beads in withered hands as they mouthed prayers to themselves
According to James Bruce, the 18th-century Scottish explorer who came to Ethiopia to seek the source of the Nile, the Empress Mentewab is said to have proclaimed: “I, the mother of kings, who have sat upon the throne of this country for more than thirty years, have for my only wish, night and day, that, after giving up everything in the world, I could be conveyed to the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and beg alms for my subsistence all my life after, if only I could be buried in the street within sight of the gate of that temple where our blessed Savior once lay.”
Most Ethiopians who go to Lalibela, especially those who are poor, know they are unlikely to even leave the country, let alone get to Jerusalem. But they don’t need to—they have Lalibela, hence those impassioned protests to protect the churches.
“The screens were meant to be renovated after five years, but still nothing has happened,” 37-year-old Daniel Fethi told me as he showed me around the churches. “People are worried about them damaging the buildings. But the most significant problem is the beauty of the churches being hidden. It’s a holy place.”
Concerns about the giant protective screens center on worries about them being buffeted by winds or rusting, and the accordant risk of partially or entirely collapsing on a church, or the danger their weight poses to tunnels running under churches. During protests in 2018, people carried placards that read ”Where are you UNESCO?”
There are also concerns about previous and ongoing restoration efforts to repair those churches already damaged by the erosive effects of centuries of sun and rain that dominate Ethiopia’s climate. On one visit I bumped into a team of international specialists, known as the Lalibela Mission, that has been visiting the site for the last ten years to research its origins. I ended up joining them as they explored a deep, man-made trench running through the church complex, which included an encounter with a large, ancient stone cross plonked in the trench. It was an exciting, Indiana Jones-style moment, at least for me. The team explained the trench is meant to represent the Jordan River that runs through the Holy Land, with the cross denoting its religious significance. It had presumably been put there by whomever built the church.
During protests in 2018, people carried placards that read ”Where are you UNESCO?”
“It’s a bit shocking what they have done,” Marie-Laure Derat, the group’s leader, told me about recent repairs at the Bet Mikael and Bet Golgotha churches as we clambered around the trench and its surroundings, slipping on loose earth and grasping at rocks to grip. “It’s not restoration; they haven’t even used the right colors. The work doesn’t look like it will last for long.”
Later after our exertions, and over a bottle of cheap local ouzo with the team back at their hotel, Derat told me how the questionable restoration work is an example of the wider issue of how vast amounts of foreign money are swallowed into a veritable financial black hole in the name of “restoration,” with few questions asked.
“After the screens were built, they found a couple of million euros were left over, so they put it toward building a museum in the town,” she said. “It’s a beautiful building, but it’s basically empty now. Hardly anything has been done with it.” This, she explained, was down to wrangling at the local level and intransigence by the local church authorities over where Lalibela’s more portable artifacts should reside.
The EOTC hasn’t exactly been covering itself in glory in its stewardship of Lalibela. Locals I spoke with expressed frustration over authorities not doing more to look after the churches and letting them degrade, despite all the money made from tourists who pay a $50 entry fee per person—a huge sum compared to other sites around the country and considering the fact many local people in Lalibela wrestle with grinding poverty. “The church’s behavior is very strange; people find it odd,” says Byan Abbat, a hotel manager in Lalibela. “But most people won’t say anything, as they are afraid to speak out.”
The members of the Lalibela Mission note that, concerns over the recent restorations notwithstanding, the screens aren’t rusting and aren’t going to collapse, and that sonar scans have shown no tunnels beneath where they are sited. In short, they say, many of the locals’ fears are unfounded. The screens are in fact needed and should cover all the churches, and the main problem is that local people have not been kept properly informed about the conservation processes.
At the same time, such a Western, non-Ethiopian assessment of the problem may still fail to heed what is most essential. Hard facts have never held much sway for locals in how they view Lalibela, with an element of mystery being a crucial part of its potency. There are various legends about how and why the churches were constructed: that while the earthly workforce rested at night, construction was continued by a celestial one; or that the Knights Templar were the real builders; or that King Lalibela was poisoned by his brother (or half-brother, or half-sister) and while in a coma he went on a journey to heaven where God commanded him to return to Ethiopia and re-create the holy city of Jerusalem there.
It is certainly plausible, according to historians, that Lalibela was built to replace as a pilgrimage center the real Jerusalem, lost to the Christian world in 1187 when it fell to Saladin, or simply to provide an alternative to pilgrims for the city that had always had such a profound grip on the Ethiopian imagination, but was physically so hard to reach. When it comes to their authorship, the churches are so different from each other in style, artisanship and preservation that most scholars agree they must span a far longer period than just Lalibela’s reign in the 12th century. But so much more remains hidden.
“We still know next to nothing about how the churches were built and the people that built them,” Kidane Mariam Woldegiorgis, an Ethiopian archaeologist with the Lalibela Mission, told me.
It is certainly plausible, according to historians, that Lalibela was built to replace as a pilgrimage center the real Jerusalem, lost to the Christian world in 1187
But such questions are of little consequence to those who comes to worship here. On my final morning, after another early morning visit to the churches, as I began my walk back to the hotel to catch a taxi to the airport, I passed children with books under their arms hurrying to school. Almost every one of them stopped outside the entrance to the church compound to bow and cross themselves three times, before continuing on their way.
I knew the young boys I had seen reading prayer books beside church walls were likely still there, and would be again another day, as I headed back to the melee of Addis Ababa. My advice to anyone who visits Lalibela would be: don’t rush it. Allow time so you can muster a 6 a.m. visit to see the locals in private worship. Out of everything I’ve seen when I’ve visited, there is one enchanting image that stays with me more than any other—something that leaves even the church’s architectural magnificence mute and moot, and transcends all the current fuss over restorations, foreign money and greedy church authorities. It’s that old woman slowly making her way down those stone steps each day to pray, as she prepares to leave this all behind.
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the Horn of Africa, the U.S., and the UK, and writes for various international media.