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Friday 6 Mar 2009
Lalibela, Ethiopia

Lalibela Day 1!

Another Fokker 50 flight (I love saying that) and I was in Lalibela! The most famous historical location in Ethiopia!

Lalibela is, of course, the location of the famous "rock-hewn churches" that were built by King Lalibela in the 12th century and according to locals this was done in a matter of 23 days with the help of "angelic" forces! Lalibela had a desire to build an "African Jerusalem" free from persecution by Arabs after having visited the city.

Bet Giyorgis
Bet Giyorgis

Regardless of how long it took to create them (or the 40,000 person workforce that scientists believe would be required for the task) they are fantastic creations that are "purely Ethiopian" in the characterists of their Aksumite-shaped windows and doors and exceptional masonry skills.

What makes these churches wonders of the world is the fact that they were all carved directly into the surrounding rock (evidently there was a lack of trees or a rock-quarry at the time to make temples out of wood or loose stone) and then, unlike Petra, the masons went further and actually "separated" the churches completely from the surrounding rock by making all 4 sides free of any contact with the original stone container (except the bottom of course!).

The most famous church in Lalibela is "Bet Giyorgis" which is a beautifully detailed church that we always see in the documentaries and magazine articles, but there are 10 other churches that each have their own unique style and (particularly in the case of the south-easter group) have mazes of tunnels and deep Petra-like gorges to get lost in before you reach them. Fantastic stuff!

Getting to Lalibela by bus is an arduous 2-day task due to mountainous badly-maintained roads so the best option is to fly in.

On arrival at the airport, there was only one small minibus heading to town (no taxis here) so pretty much everyone on the plane crammed into the tiny van and we sped off. Sitting behind me was a guy that I had met in the luggage area who worked for the hotel I had selected: Blue Lal Hotel, and it quickly transpired that he was actually a guide and just represented the hotel as it provided him with an opportunity to get new customers. Sneaky!

My guide stealing my...
My guide stealing my...

Still though, he was a decent enough bloke, and we shared a lunch of injera with fasting food (basically food with no meat). At this time of year, most Orthodox Ethiopians fast, so only eat vegetables and thus all restaurants (apart from expensive hotel ones like the one in Aksum)  stock vegetables and no meat. It was delicious though, a lentil-curry thing, and several other different concoctions.

My hotel was central enough and most importantly CHEAP (I managed to get it for 160 birr - about $14 - for two nights, reduced from 250), although exceedingly noisy at night I was to find (noisy tej bars and even a brothel were my neighbours). Thank god for the earplugs!

Lalibela has sporadic electricity and water supply (despite it raining each night I was there!) so I would regularly find the taps and even the toilet flush running on empty (never mind trying to have a shower in the mornings). Not to mention the 2 hours of electricity we had on the first day. I tell ya, the people get through it somehow tho, and the restaurants still manage to serve up food (albeit beside candlelight, and taking somewhat longer to cook)... not to mention the bars making the most of the electricity when it DOES arrive! Tej is the famously-strong honey wine that is served in Ethiopian bars.. and I tell ya, when the Ethiopians want to party they do it in style (I was to experience a spontaneous Ethiopian party the following night...)

I chatted with the guide (let's call him "Bernie") over lunch and I mentioned to him that I don't usually get guides but might consider a half-day thing to get started. I prefer to explore myself really and make my own mind up about a place rather than be told what to think... as if I was a explorer freshly coming across these sites and not knowing what to expect (altho admittedly guides can be useful sometimes if you want to get the correct interpretation). We agreed to meet up an hour later to discuss the plan.

Bernie came back an hour later as agreed and informed me that he had two other girls from South Africa who were willing to go along on the tour which meant I could go too for a much lower fee. So I agreed. What I wasn't aware of was that the plan was to do one tour today and another tomorrow .. I really wanted some time to myself to take photos at my own pace.

And so my worst fears about guides quickly emerged as we paid in and started on the tour. For one, I could barely understand Bernie's accent sometimes, and then for another he kept on moving through the sites too fast and I felt I was missing great opportunities for photographs. Also he seemed to be spending most of his time talking to the girls, so I pretty much learned nothing from the tour. At the end of the day I explained that I was going to do the second day on my own, so rather than pay 75 birr ($6 for the 2 day tour) I said I thought it would be fair for me to pay 50 birr ($5) for the day and then they could have the guide to themselves tomorrow (paying 87 birr instead of 75). One of the South African girls then got completely flustered and went on a rampage about me "renegeeng on the egreemint!" .. Jesus if it meant that much to her, I could pay the extra dollar, as I said, but they just went off in a huff ... freaky south africans eh Laughing

Service in Bet Medhane...
Service in Bet Medhane...

Puff Daddy?
Puff Daddy?

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself here ... Lalibela itself is all that I expected it to be! Really like living history, as the churches are used today as they were hundreds of years ago. We arrived the first day on a particularly fortuitous occasion: it was a day of celebration for the Bet Medhane Alem church, and there was a full congregation of pilgrims wearing traditional garb inside. We were eventually even permitted to enter and observe the proceedings. It was fairly bewildering as the place was packed solid, and I felt it would be a bit offensive using the camera flash (hence why the photos are a little blurry). Of course this didn't stop a hoard of American tourists doing it, but sure that's to be expected! (incidentally there were more American tourists in Ethiopia than any other nationality, which I found odd)

At the end of the ceremony, a priest (resembling P Diddy!) held up a huge 7kg solid gold cross (created 800 years ago) and stood for photos (this became a common-place event in most of the churches as each has a group of "guardian" priests that mind the treasures within ... a few birr tip is normally expected)

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I bless the rains down in Africa

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Day 3  ... Lookin forward to Uhuru peak, Kilimanjaro

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Photo Album

  • Bet Giyorgis



    Bet Giyorgis
  • Sheep skin...



    Sheep skin canvas
  • St Peter...



    St Peter relief in Bet Golgotha
  • Carved window



    Carved window