Thursday, January 16, 2014

Lalibela at Last!


Me, posing in front of Bet Giyorgis (Church of St. George), the most iconic of the Lalibela churches.

Ihave been waiting for this day to come for months! I was so excited when I woke up this morning!

I was up before the crack of dawn today and was eating breakfast by 6:45a. We had to have our luggage ready for pickup by 8:30 and ready to leave for the airport by 8:45. We had a plane to catch to Lalibela at 10:45a.

We arrived at Axum Yohannes IV Airport no more than 15 minutes after leaving the hotel. Before the van was allowed on to airport premises, we all had to get out of the van and show our passports to the police. First time I've ever had to do that. Next security check was at the front entrance to the airport. After that, we had to check in which we did as a group. Seating was general assignment though we were all issued a boarding pass.

As with all the other flights, there was no boarding announcement. I don't think they have PA systems in their airports. When we noticed a group of people gathering to enter the departure lounge, we decided to join them. There was yet another security check before entering the departure lounge. We had some time to kill before departure so a lot of chatting took place. When I noticed a bunch of people beginning to crowd around one of the exit doors, I added myself to the mix pushing myself to the front. We watched our plane land - must use same plane from Addis. Then, the ticket agent opened up the door next to the one most people had crowded around so there was a mad dash to the other set of doors. Once again, I pushed myself forward and found myself standing next to Pat. It was chaotic - people shoving and pushing to try and get through the doors as soon as they could. Pat made it through the doors before I did so I ran to catch up with her on the tarmac. She was determined to get a seat up front so she could take pictures. I wanted to do the same and at the same time get a window seat for Gale as she loves to look out the window. It's her 66th birthday to day and getting her window seat is my gift to here. Pat got the seat she wanted and Robert took the seat next to here. I was a few rows behind and Gale joined me, taking the window seat that I had secured for her.

The group waiting for our luggage - Jean in the red shirt with Marianne and Pat standing behind her; Sam in the blue jeans.

The plane took off on schedule and we landed in Lalibela a short 30 minutes later. On the way in to the arrival terminal, Judy asked me if I thought that our guide from Addis, who said he would be joining us in Lalibela would be there. I replied back, "No".  Call me a skeptic.

Looking out at the runway.  Our plane in the background.

We only had to wait about 10 minutes for our luggage to appear. The carousel wasn't working so we had to retrieve the luggage from the cart itself. No problem.

So, was our guide from Addis there to meet us? No. Instead, a gentleman named Achenef ("Ah-chay-neff") was there to greet us. He would be our local guide for our visit to Lalibela. Seems like a nice guy and his English is very good.

Luggage and people all piled into the van, we headed out of the airport to our hotel in Lalibela, about a 25 kilometer ride. The weather here is definitely much warmer than that in either Axum or Addis and the landscape is as arid as in Aksum but much more mountainous.


All along our drive, we could see the thatched adobe dwellings of the locals - Lalibelans (??). Reminds me of Dogon mud buildings in Mali.


We wound our way up a mountain and got out near the top to take the magnificent views.


We obviously stopped at a popular view point as the children aka young sales vendors swarmed around the van. We all got out and took our photo ops of the mountains beyond and valley below.



Back in the van, we continued towards Lalibela.

Lots of thatched roof mud homes.

We passed an area of new homes - supposedly built by assistance from the World Bank.  The residents are those who have been displaced from land near the Lalibela churches.

As was the case in both Addis and Aksum, there are people walking everywhere.  What Ethiopia needs is a good public transportation system!

People everywhere - sitting on the roadside, on the way to school, home, shop, field.....

Thatched roof homes mixed in with newer style homes.  I wonder which is better?

Come along for the ride!



There's always someone carrying something in Ethiopia!  Here, men carrying wood....we think to a construction site.

Street in central, downtown Lalibela.

Commercial area near our hotel.

At the hotel, we checked in and had about 1/2 hour to freshen up before having a buffet lunch at the hotel.

My room at the Roha Hotel.  Looked and felt just like my room at the Yeha Hotel in Aksum.

View from outside my room - overlooking the entry driveway of the hotel.

Then, it was back in the van. We would spend our afternoon visiting 5 of the 11 rock hewn churches of Lalibela.

Map of Lalibela,  Our hotel and favorite restaurant circled in red.
(Map from Bradt Travel Guides , Ethiopia Highlights by Philip Briggs)

Five of the six make up what is known as the Northwest cluster - Bet Medhane Alem, Bet Maryam, Bet Danaghel, Bet Mikael, and Bet Golgotha. The last church we would visit today would be Bet Giyorgis, the iconic rock hewn church of Lalibela.

Walking towards the entry to the Lalibela church complex.

So what's the big deal about the rock hewn churches of Lalibela?  Well, transport yourself to back to the 13th century. Imagine taking a hand tool and chiseling down in to a mountain to create the four exterior sides of a building and then using those same hand tools to hewn out the interior space for the building. After that, you then hand chisel out rock to create details such as molding, windows and doors, pillars, arched ceilings and even domes. If you’re up to it, paint a few frescoes and carve out a few wooden doors. Repeat this process ten more times and then hand chisel out an extensive system of drainage ditches, trenches and ceremonial passages, some with openings to hermit caves and catacombs. No two church exteriors or interiors should be the same and each church should honor a different religious figure. Add it all up and you now have completed work on the complex of spectacular monolithic, hand hewn churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia which were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.  Without a doubt, the rock church complex at Lalibela is one of the most spectacular manmade constructions in the world.  Perhaps ou can now understand why I am so thrilled to finally be able to see the churches!

Achenef, or Achey as we have nicknamed him, got our entry tickets while we completed some brief registration forms.  We didn't have to pay for our entry tickets as they were covered by our tour but the entry fee is about $50 USD.  Your entry is good for multiple days so which works out nicely because the complex is so large, it's hard to take it all in in one day.

Our visit to the Northwest cluster of churches began with a quick visit to the museum. It reminded me a lot of the museum that we visited yesterday at St. Mary Tsion in Axum. The items in the small collection were not labeled so Achey walked us by each display case and explained the items to us. Unlike my visit to the museum's yesterday which I did not really enjoy, I found this one to be very informative.  Always good to have someone tell you what you're looking at!

Then it was off to see the churches. Finally! We started with Bet Medhane Alem which is the world's largest monolithic church.

Exterior facade of Bet Mehane Alem. Standing in front of the church, all I could do was marvel at the sheer amount of human labor that it must have taken to chisel out this building from the solid rock!

Door and windows.  The pillars are new which explains the brick like markings. Achey showed us a couple of the original pillars so we could see the difference.

The whole church sits under a protective awning.  Compared to the people standing next to support pillar, you can see how large the church is.

Another set of windows.  You can see that they are shaped exactly like the topper of the stelae in Aksum.

We,  including two guides in training, were all listening carefully to Achey's words. 

More of the window detail.  Can you believe this was all chiseled out by hand?

Detail at the top of the exterior facade. 

There' was a lot of looking up!


Interior of Bet Medhane Alem.  Notice the detail work on the pillars and ceiling.  All chiseled out of solid rock!

Carpets covered the rock floor and paintings were propped up against the walls.  Behind the curtain is the room housing the Ark of the Covenant.  Every church had a guard, sitting near the Ark, to protect the church.

Ceiling detail.

Interior view of one of the windows.  If you closely at the surface of the walls, you can actually see the chisel marks!

The entry door to Bet Medhane Alem.

You have to take your shoes off to enter each church.  Glad I wore slip ons and no socks.

From inside Bet Mehane Alem, you can see Bet Maryam which was the next church we visited. Bet means house in Amharic and Maryam is Mary so this is the Church of St. Mary.


Of all the Northwest cluster churches, I think Bet Maryam was the most interesting - for one thing, it was the only one that had frescoes painted on the ceilings.

Looking at the northern façade.  If you look closely at the lower right window, it looks like a cutout of a swatiska but it's not.  The symbol goes in the opposite direction of the swastika and is in reality an ancient Christian symbol showing that Christ’s love goes out in every direction, to all corners of the earth.

The southern façade which is also the entrance to the church.

We hiked up the hill to view the church from above. 

The chapel of Bet Danaghel - the smallest of the churches in the Northwest cluster.  I don't know if it's open to the public or not.

A lone bell hanging from one of the windows.

A portrait of Mary covered by a protective cloth. 

Baptismal pool.

Painting of Mary inside Bet Maryam.

The entry was pretty small - we crammed in to listen to Achey give us background information on Bet Maryam.

The beautiful frescoes of Bet Maryam, the most impressive of the Northwest cluster churches.  Unfortunately, it was so dim inside, I had problems taking a non-blurry photo.  It's times like this that I wish I was a really skilled photographer :-(

Young man standing guard in front of the curtain that shields the room housing Bet Maryam's copy of the Ark of the Covenant.

Another set of beautiful frescoes and another blurry photo.  This one happened to be next to the door and every time someone exited or entered, we all tried to quickly snap the photo.  Unfortunately, except for the pros, the rest of us had no luck getting a good shot.

Halfway decent shot of the ceiling frescoes near the door. 

Another painting of Mary.

Beautiful ceiling and carved details.  Amazing to think the details were all hand chiseled out of the hard stone.  On the right pillar, you can see some of the chisel markings.

View of the outside from one of the windows.  I think that's Bet Mikael.

Entrance on the western façade

Above the entrance on the western façade,  carving of St. George slaying a dragon.

Drums tucked into a nook for storage.

A view of the western and southern façades of Bet Maryam.

A clergyman standing at the entrance to Bet Meskel.  The carved arches above the door, of which there are 12, represent the Apostles.

From inside Bet Meskel, looking at the façade of Bet Maryam.

From Bet Maryam, a narrow trenchway leads to Bet Mikael and Bet Golgotha (also known as Bet Debre Sina). Bet Golgotha is the most sacred of the Lalibela churches, containing a tomb believed to hold King Lalibela's remains.

Covered entry leading to the trenchway.

Following Achey to Bet Mikael which he refers to as Bet Debre Sina.

Looking at one of the façades of Bet Mikael.

Viewing one of the paintings (of St. Michael?) inside Bet Mikael.

Carved cruciform pillars.  Bet Mikael and Bet Golgotha are the only two churches to have crosses carved on the pillars.

A closer view of the cross.  Another blurry photo.  Sigh.

Guarding Bet Mikael....

....from tourists like us :-)

Detail of the carved windows.

A view of the interior wall, windows and pillars of Bet Mikael.

From inside Bet Mikael, you can enter into Bet Golgotha, that is if you are a man - women are not allowed inside.  I handed my camera to Achey so he could take photos and he took just one - the relief of St. Peter that is carved in to one of the walls.



Exiting Bet Mikael.  Steps, were more often than not, uneven and steep.  A helping hand was always welcomed!

Last church we visited was the pièce de résistance - Bet Giyorgis which is located a short walk away from the Northwest cluster. The church stands on its own - it's not grouped together with any other churches.  It is the only church in the so called West cluster.

The approach to Bet Giyorgis is via a path that ends in a bluff overlooking the church itself. Craggy mountains frame your view in the far distance. The carved cross atop the church's view is spectacular - I don't think pictures do it justice. The yellow markings on the church's exterior wall are lichen. Of course, this was time for the photo op. In late afternoon, the sun was shining was to our east so the conditions for taking photos was pretty good. We all snapped away and I even asked for my photo to be taken in front of this World Heritage landmark.

Seeing Bet Giyorgis was one of those goosebump moments for me - what an amazing sight.  Of all the churches, it's the only one where you can see the entire building from above and truly get a sense of the human effort that it took to chisel out this structure!


We walked counterclockwise around the church and took in the views of the landscape of Lalibela in the distance.

I squatted down to get a bird's eye view of the exterior façades.

Looking down towards the church's courtyard.

Looking down at the entrance to the church.  It was late afternoon and the sun cast a warm light over the terracotta colored façade of the church.

The shadows are Pat and I (that hump is my backpack).  It was just a bit of fun!

 The vibrant yellow and orange hues of the lichen that covers all four façades of the church - looks like someone spilled splashed paint over the church.

We made our way around the church to reach the path and steps that would lead us down to the church's main entrance.


Surprisingly, the interior of St. Giyorgis was not at all impressive - especially in comparison to that of Bet Maryam.  I took all of one photo - this one of a painting of St. George - I'm guessing it's St. George.


Enjoying a good laugh while putting our shoes back on.

A view of the church from *ground level*.





The one memorable feature about Bet Giyorgis was that some of the cavities in the walls surrounding the church hold mummified corpses.  Don't remember the reason why.

Leaving Bet Giyorgis.

One last view.

Our walk to and from Bet Giyorgis was on a path that was surrounded on both sides by woodland.  Thatched roofed mud homes dotted the landscape.  The people who live here are the ones who are being relocated to the newer homes closer to town.

Judy straining to see the monkeys high up in the trees. 

And there are the monkeys!

My wooden cowbell from Lalibela.  It's very cute!

After Bet Giyorgis, we headed back to the hotel. We had about an hour to kill before dinner but I wasn't quite ready to head back to my room so I joined a few of the other ladies to do a bit of shopping at the souvenir stalls located across the street from the entry gate to our hotel. I had no intentions of buying anything until this cute little wooden cowbbell with it's pair of wooden clappers caught my eye. I really didn't bargain hard as the bell was so reasonably priced to begin with. In the end, I payed 80 birr, about $4 USD!

I had dinner with the gang but wanted to make it an early night. Tomorrow we have a full day of sightseeing and other activities so I want to make sure I'm fully rested. I took a shower, did some laundry and worked on this posting. As I write these last few sentences, I can feel my eyes wanting to shut. I am tired. Lights out.

Good night from Lalibela!