Rock-Hewn Churches

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Things to do


Date of travel

January, 2016

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Lalibela in Ethiopia is famous for rock-hewn churches, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After a five-minute drive from the “Maribela Hotel”: to the centre of town, we arrived at the entrance where we, and our bags, were searched. Eskedar, our guide, paid our entrance fee and we completed a form giving our name, country, passport number and for some reason age.

Our visit began in the relatively new museum where artifacts had been taken from the churches to prevent them being stolen. There were manuscripts written on animal skins, robes with gold threading, crowns and all the accoutrements for a mass (i.e. bread and water containers and incense burners).

We started at the monolithic Bet Medhane Alem (House of the Holy Saviour). This was the largest of the five churches in the northwestern cluster and after walking around the outside, we clambered down rough rocks, passing empty slots where bodies had previously been buried (they now reside elsewhere). We noted the 36 pillars on the outside before having taken off our shoes, and left them with our personal shoe bearer, we went inside to see the 36 interior pillars. Inside were three empty graves from Jacob and his two sons and Eskedar said sometimes people lie in them and do something with a piece of wood which tells them whether they will go to heaven or hell! He did not volunteer to do this.

A short but steep tunnel took us to Bet Maryam (House of Mary), said to be the first Lalibela built church and much smaller than the first one. This was the only one of the churches with visible paintings on the roof and walls. It had a mezzanine which was used to store church treasures: although we saw the stairs leading up to it, it wasn’t accessible.

Bet Meskal (House of the Cross) was next, but it was one of the smallest and as there was a large group inside, and Eskedar said it wasn’t particularly remarkable, we passed by.

The next we entered was Bet Danaghel (House of the Virgins) constructed in honour of 50 maiden nuns murdered by the Roman ruler Julian. Here we saw the fertility pool with green algae covered water which is said to cure infertile women if dipped in three times on the Ethiopian Christmas day (7 January).

We finished at the twin churches of Bet Mikael (also known as Bet Debre Sina) and Bet Golgotha. Only men can enter the latter and I waited on a stone bench outside thinking that in a different life, I might have been a suffragette. Inside was the Tomb of Adam where to try to cure the sickness he’d been suffering from, Eskedar got soil from a small bowl, rubbed it round his lips and then ate a little of it.

Reunited we concluded our tour of the northwestern cluster and headed for lunch.

Helen Jackson

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