If Lalibela was anywhere else apart from Ethiopia it would be swarming in tourists. It is quite simply a unique architectural site of human religious endeavour and should be on everyone’s must see itinerary. King Lalibela (means honey eater) lived in the 14th century and was inspired to build the world’s largest rock-hewn churches. They are on a European scale cathedral style. What makes them even more wonderful is the red sedimentary rock they are embedded in. Lalibela was also very smart because he built an extensive set of deep water drainage channels because he knew that water was a danger to all such buildings. This extensive set of channels kept the below surface churches dry in the rainy season. Some of these channels are 20 feet deep with inlooks, caves and pathways. But it is the churches that overwhelm in their achievement. There are 12 churches and each one is different. Some have elaborate paintings and sculpture, while others are symmetric and angular. I believe all 12 churches were carved during the King’s lifetime which must have involved tens of thousands or people for 40 years or more. It is still immersed in legend as all the guides will tell you. The most famous church is the last one he built: St. George’s. It is uncanny that George is so important to Ethiopians and is also the patron saint of England. George’s father was supposed to be English and his mother Ethiopian. All churches here revere St. George.
Lalibella itself is covered in traditional houses made of wood and stone. The local population lead a rural life mostly unchanged for 100s of years. A huge market is held on Saturdays and the roads are full of local people carrying their wares, chickens, goats etc. to the market area. I found this fascinating and the area is divided into different areas selling different produce. One was selling honey straight from pots, which meant the area was also full of bees! In the evening I decided to try the local traditional bar and sample home- made honey wine. This has been fermented and had a rather pleasant not sweet taste. It must have been powerful stuff as I woke up with a headache the next morning. I suspect they gave me the strongest brew they had, and this convinced me to help two students buy the books they said they needed to pass the next exams.
The churches of Lalibela are quite amazing. It is still not sure how they were built and how many workmen were involved. There are plenty of myths about supernatural help for King Lalibela to build all 12 churches during his lifetime. The last church, St. George’s, is the one normally publicised, but all of them are unique and different one from the other.