Lalibela is the site of one of the most remarkable collections of rock hewn churches. There are 11 churches in the complex, all built under King Lalibela in the 12 th century.
The story we were told is that Lalibela was poisoned by his brother shortly after he ascended the throne ( a familiar theme by now). Instead of dying he remained in a coma for three days and when he woke he said he had seen a vision and had been transported to Jerusalem on the wings of angels and that he would build Jerusalem in Ethiopia so his people would more easily be able to complete the holy pilgrimage. Even in those times the religious pinnacle was to visit Jerusalem but, not surprisingly, few could afford this journey. The churches were dug out of igneous rock. Most are square or cross shaped. They took just 12 years to complete.
Lalibela is now a much revered Ethiopian saint, and went into retreat and lived in a cave as a hermit after the completion of his project. Priests who lived in the complex are mummified and buried within the confines of the complex
He left behind this most amazing architectural legacy. At their inception many were used for other civic functions such as palaces but now all have been consecrated as churches. Of the 8000 people who live in Lalibela 1000 are priests. In the courtyards of the churches small chambers have been excavated in the rock walls where hermits may come and live sometimes for many years and sometimes die there. In one or two we were shown the bones!
Some of the churches have underground passages between them , rocky and quite steep in places. Many are named after religious landmarks, Bethlehem and the river Jordan. In each church there are dusty Persian carpets and religious artifacts. Some have colourful murals. We leave our shoes at the door and venture in the cool dark interiors. Many of the churches have baptismal ponds . The Mary compound is the biggest and is said to cure infertility.
With our trusty guide we walk around the complexes , only stopping for lunch when the sun is hot and, much to our surprise, by the end of the day we have seen them all. It is no wonder this is one of the most sacred pilgrimages in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and well worth a visit to feel the immense weight of history and faith surround you. The town is friendly, built on wooded hills with cobbled winding roads bright and smiling people swathed in their white prayer shawls. A fitting end to an Ethiopian cultural and historical adventure