Editor’s note: Sometimes it is wonderful to get a perspective that isn’t my own. For the first time, I am publishing on The Royal Tour an article about a place I’ve never been, and in fact, had never heard of before reading. I met Madeleine through a mutual friend, another travel writer, and we quickly became friends over our shared love of travel. She has been to some amazing places off the beaten path, and I have been trying for some time to convince her to share her experiences with all of us. Please join me in welcoming her! If you enjoy her writing, please let me know – or even better, comment publicly so she can see – and perhaps we can convince her to do a monthly column here at TRT.
Any traveler with a combined passion for adventure and history has probably had Lalibela on their bucket list for some time now. For those unfamiliar – Lalibela is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the mountainous Amhara region of Ethiopia made famous by its 13th century rock-hewn churches. Construction of these monolithic wonders began in the 12th century, when Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem were put on hold by the Muslim conquest of the original Holy Land. King Lalibela decided to build a New Jerusalem, and the site still remains a destination for pilgrims from all over the world.
You may be asking yourself what differentiates Lalibela’s churches from all the other UNESCO World Heritage churches you’ve already seen. To answer in brief – these churches were built down, not up. As you pick your way along the rocky paths leading out of the mountain village, you won’t be struck by any towers, minarets, or spires piercing the horizon. Instead, you’ll have to look below your feet to catch a glimpse of the entrances to these churches.
Connected by an intricate labyrinth of tunnels and pathways carved into the rock, Lalibela’s 11 churches are the perfect destination for any traveler who wants to feel a little bit like Indiana Jones. You’ll find yourself clambering up and down wooden ladders, feeling your way through dark tunnels, and tiptoeing across stone bridges to get from one holy site to the next. Unlike most tourist destinations, Lalibela is not one of the places to visit during off-peak hours to avoid the crowds. Instead, it is best experienced early on a Sunday morning, as hundreds of people dressed all in white, both locals and pilgrims, gather to fill the churches.
You’ll begin your day just as the sun is starting to rise. The chant of prayers echoing through the tunnels and up into the crisp morning air will lead you to the largest of the churches, where you can see (and even kiss, if you are willing to follow local tradition) the Lalibela Cross. From there, you’ll wind your way through a series of trenches and tunnels, followed by the heavy perfume of incense and, more likely than not, a parade of curious children. With your new entourage in tow, you’ll spend the better part of the morning climbing up giant stone steps, squeezing past families on narrow rock over-passes, and feeling your way blindly though the 100-meter pitch-black tunnel meant to represent Hell. Lalibela on a Sunday morning is truly magical.
If you think these churches sound a little intimidating and difficult to access – you’re right. They were designed to be a challenge to the pilgrim, with the idea in mind that reaching God is not an easy path. While it seems that this would limit visitors to include only the very young and spry, you’ll see everyone from toddlers to the elderly setting their own pace as they make their way to these sacred churches.
You might be the type of traveler that prefers to eschew the use of a professional guide in favor of exploring on your own. That’s totally fine – I am also that traveler. However, Lalibela is definitely a place where having a local guide comes in handy. Ethiopian Orthodox churches aren’t like a lot of western churches, and it can be overwhelming to try to navigate on your own, especially if you don’t want to commit cultural or religious faux pas. To make the absolute most of your trip to Lalibela, you’ll want a good local guide.
I went to Lalibela as a weekend trip while I was in Addis Ababa for work, and I felt that two days gave me plenty of time to explore the village and churches. I highly recommend adding Lalibela to your list of must-see destinations. It’s an easy 1-hour flight from Addis Ababa, plus an additional 30-minute drive through the mountains up to the village. There are plenty of hotels available, many with dine-in options if you are less comfortable wandering out into the town at night. Keep in mind that Lalibela is perched at 8,500 feet above sea level, so prepare to drink plenty of water!
If you are traveling at a more leisurely pace and don’t have to be back in the office on Monday morning, there is plenty of hiking in the area that I didn’t have time to take advantage of, so it would be easy to extend your trip by a few days without running out of things to do. Whether you choose to spend a short weekend or a longer time exploring the mountains around Lalibela, you’ll have a unique and unforgettable trip.
Madeleine Klingler has spent the last three years traveling internationally as a software trainer. Her hobbies include reading on park benches, trying to understand foreign cartoons on hotel TVs, and not drinking enough water in Lalibela. For more, follow her on Instagram here.
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