Lalibela And My Experience In The Holy City On A Budget

lalibela bete

Lalibela, one of the oldest towns of Ethiopia, located in Lasta, Amhara Region, in Ethiopia. The town is famous for its rock-cut monolithic churches. The whole of Lalibela is a large antiquity of the medieval and post-medieval civilization of Ethiopia. Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s holiest towns, the first being Axum, and is a center of pilgrimage. The population of Lalibela is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox Christian like most towns in Ethiopia.

This article is an overview of the history of this amazing town and a description of the culture, religion and different aspects based on my personal visits and researches.

I had the chance to visit this town almost a year ago (end of February to the beginning of March). I had the privilege of seeing all the 11 churches in detail and interact with the people there. I stayed there for five days before traveling to another marvelous town of Gondar.

Lalibela was an experience for me and was the highlight of my trip to northern Ethiopia.

The town of Lalibela was built surrounding the famous Lalibela churches. It has a very high slope to get to the town and this makes traveling harder. The narrow roads into the town are usually packed with high traffic of busses carrying tourists who came from all over the world. The horse and donkey carts transport the local people and supplies up and down the slope slowing the buses and making it harder for a faster drive.

We finally got to the top, to the center of the town and asked for the hotel we booked ahead. The hotel is called ‘Yemra ha’. It had a unique Architectural approach to it. It imitated the horizontal wall treatments of the local churches or as some experts would say the northern rock-hewn churches.

It had rooms lined up on the edges of the compound leaving a vegetation area and a campfire area in the middle with a height that goes above the room’s roofs on the east side. Though the landscape features are not that exceptional. It’s a good place to sit down and enjoy a view.

The hotel room I stayed in was wide and had local materiality and furniture design. Wooden wide beds and side tables with working showers and bathrooms and enough space to put my belongings in along with my two roommates.

The first night in Lalibela, we had dinner in a nearby restaurant. The ‘Shero’ or locally known as ‘tegabino’ was exceptional. The season we went was, unfortunately, a fasting season and culturally the society there is very intertwined with religion, given that the town is constructed as the rock-hewn churches as it’s center. Food was with no meat and dairy products. Still good.

That night ended with dinner and back to the rooms early given that the next day I had a visit planned to go to the churches, study them as an Architecture student and document some things for my report presentation back home. Before going to bed I had to go through the compiled files of Lalibella to get a general overview of the place I was in once again. In my files, I had data about the history, cultural observations of foreigners and local people and overall studies of the hewn churches.

Lalibela Monolithic Churches

The site of Lalibela on the northern plateau of Ethiopia is world-renowned as a historical riddle and a tourist attraction. The site is named after King Lalibela of the Zagwe dynasty. The Lalibela complex is traditionally divided into groups of three.

The first group, located in the northern part of the site, includes five monuments namely, Medhane Alem, Maryam, Denagel, Masqal and the complex of Debre Sina/Golgota/Sellasse (which comprises three churches). This Northern Group is separated from the Eastern Group by a seasonal stream, the Jordan (Yordanos), which runs in a deep ditch of sorts that collects water from the entire site. This ditch shows evidence that it is partly man-made. The Eastern Group has five monuments, Gabriel-Rafael, the Bethlehem, Marqorewos, Amanuel, and Libanos. Another group, to the west, only comprises the church of Giyorgis.

History of Lalibela

During the reign of Gebre Mesqel, a king in the Zagwe Dynasty who ruled Ethiopia at that time (late 12th and early 13th century), the current town of Lalibela was known as ‘Roha’. The saint/king was named because a swarm of bees is said to have surrounded him at his birth, which his mother understood as a sign of his future. A future as the emperor of Ethiopia.

The names of several places in the town and the layout of the hewn churches themselves are said to mimic names and patterns observed by Lalibela during the time he spent as a youth in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Lalibela is said to have seen Jerusalem, and then tried to build a new Jerusalem (a mimic of the real one) as his capital in response to the capture of old Jerusalem by Muslims in 1187.

Each church was carved from a single piece of rock, thus being called a monolithic underground church, to symbolize spirituality and humility. Christian faith inspired big parts of the naming of the features with Biblical names. For example, the river Jordan in the church complex is named after the river in the bible/ Jerusalem.
According to the Futuh al-Habaša of Sihab ad-Din Ahmad, Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi burned one of the churches of Lalibela during his invasion of Ethiopia.

However, Many scholars including Richard Pankhurst has expressed his skepticism about this ever happening through history, pointing out that although Sihab ad-Din Ahmad provides a detailed description of a rock-hewn church like the fact that it was carved out of the mountain and that its pillars were likewise cut from the mountain, only one church is mentioned. Pankhurst adds that “what is special about Lalibela, is that it is the site of eleven or so rock churches, not just one – and they are all within more or less a stone’s throw of each other!” thus concluding that the claim of Sihab ad-Din Ahmad being somehow false.

Lalibela and the infamous monolithic churches

The town of Lalibela is known around the world for its churches carved from the earth from “living rock”. The construction is rather unique given that the church was built from top to bottom and not bottom-up. When we see from a modern construction perspective, they started to excavate down from a hilltop till they reached a certain depth then proceeded to excavate some more horizontally (which would be the room of that church later) and as they keep on going horizontally

The previously excavated areas would go deeper into the ground which gives it the room height we see now. Of course, the site location and choice of the base rock helped as well. The character of the rock is that it is soft rock at first when it is not exposed to air, then quickly dries or hardens at the slight touch or air. This probably made the construction and excavation easier.

lalibela bete

All of this plays an important part in the history of rock-cut architecture. Though the age of the churches is not well known, most are thought to have been built during the reign of Lalibela, (during the late 12th and early 13th centuries). UNESCO identifies 11 churches (locals say there is another one, in fact, the first one, that has a different texture and carving technique to it that indicates a not so well-developed technique but rather an experimental one), assembled in three groups:

  1. The Northern Group:
    A. Bete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), home to the Lalibela Cross.
    B. Bete Maryam (House of Mary), possibly the oldest of the churches, and a replica of the Tombs of Adam and Christ.
    C. Bete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael), known for its arts and said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela)
    D. Bete Meskel (House of the Cross)
    E. Bete Denagel (House of Virgins)
  2. The Eastern Group:
    A. Bete Amanuel (House of Immanuel), possibly the former royal chapel
    B. Bete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of Saint Mercurius/House of Mark the Evangelist), which may be a former prison
    C. Bete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos)
    D. Bete Gabriel-Rafael (House of the angels Gabriel, and Raphael) possibly a former royal palace, linked to a holy bakery.
    E. Bete Lehem
  3. The Western Group:
    A. Bete Giyorgis, (Church of Saint George), thought to be the most finely executed and best-preserved church on site.

Farther afield, there is the monastery of Ashetan Maryam and Yemrehana Krestos Church (possibly built in the Aksumite fashion in the eleventh century, but still within a cave).

The churches are also known for having significant engineering feature, given that they are all associated with water (which fills the wells next to many of the churches which some use as baptizing water or holy water). The drainage system throughout the whole site is very efficient and no water, per se, is wasted and we do not see a case of flooding. Water from every corner is collected effectively through the small ditches that run throughout the site and are collected onto a main gully of sorts to then go out of the site to a point on the land where the floor of the churches aligns with the surface.

Overall, the churches of Lalibela are as explained in the above writings. UNESCO along with local authorities are currently undergoing some reconstruction and maintenance works on-site, thus seeing shades for some of the churches like Bete Amanuel. The significance of World Heritage listing in the context of traditional society, evolving communities and living heritage at the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela is very high.

(Some studies explore the tendency towards the use of heritage as a tool for social and economic development, noting that tourism-based development should be focused on and may also contribute to and comprise heritage sites. It stresses the need for an integrated site management plan because the current management plan is not well crafted.

It is obvious as the churches grow old their structural integrity goes down a notch and with a new management plan that considers this and many other factors like clear vision based on high standards for future protection of the site, including tangible and intangible aspects, with main considerations of tourism interests.

The new plan also needs to consider the development pressures in a way that ensures long-term conservation of the churches and society as a whole, benefits for the local community living in the town surrounding the churches and consideration for religious practices that go on there and the designation of the rock-hewn churches as a sacred site (given that people still use the site as a major religious site). This is challenging and it requires commitment from local and national stakeholders, with big support from the international community as well.

Even though the current approach to this whole concept of conservation is good in the eyes of the international community, local people (mainly the visitors of the site) think that the method they are using takes the beauty way from the Lalibela they have seen in pictures. Some are even skeptical about the materiality of the structures put in place and most of all the materials used to fill up the cracks being created on the walls of the churches.

But the fact of the matter is that to maintain and have the Lalibela monolithic churches as they are today (or at least close to what they are today) we need to be patient on the workflow and need to have some sort of compromise to things. This might be hard for a society, given that religion is the priority in many aspects of the Ethiopian lives, this is something people need to consider and go along with.)

.. My experience at the churches was a very mesmerizing experience, especially for an architecture student. Everything was either as good or maybe more than what was explained and expected. I saw all the churches and walked through the site, saw priests and deacons prepare for religious ceremonies and monks and nuns that live there along with religious teachers and their students (‘kolo temari’) and their paintings. I also bought souvenirs form the marketplaces where locals sell different types of crosses known as Lalibela crosses and rings that go along with them.

The next days I decided to go look into and explore the society and the town on Lalibela…

Lalibela and the Local Housing Architecture

In 1970, a report on the historic dwellings of Lalibela, it was assessed that the vernacular earthen architecture on the Lalibela World Heritage Site, including the characteristics of the traditional earth houses located just a few meters away from the churches and analysis of their state of conservation.

They have two types of characters, one type is a group called the “tukuls”, which are round huts built of stone and usually having a maximum of two stories. The second once is the single-story “chika” buildings which are round and built of a mixture of earth and grass excretes like the cultural houses found in the mid-northern parts of Ethiopia. Common features to both house types are that they both have local grass roof coverage.

Even though this is the character of the Lalibela houses, this does not mean that there are no other types of housing there. The local houses are made of bricks and HCB walls and streets are made of asphalt and cobblestones.

Lalibela People

The people of Lalibela are rather friendly and polite. As a person from the more urbanized town, I was surprised by my encounter with them. Every morning I went out of my hotel room to go through the site and just go about my day people used to greet me in a warm welcoming way. At first, I was startled by that but then I got used to it.

There are many places the local people go to enjoy their time. I visited both local/cultural places and modern places in the town of Lalibela. Of all the cultural places that are there a specific spot stands out. Torpido is located around the northern square just up the slope of the town. It is very well known for its ‘Tej’, a local alcoholic drink made from honey and went through a little bit of fermentation. It is one of the purest and strongest Tejs we have ever experienced.

The ‘Azmari’ people in Lalibela are well known for their poetic approaches towards music. Standing in the middle of the crowd with their ‘Masinko’ (a cultural instrument with only one string and another on hand looking like a bow, sound created by friction caused by grinding one over the other), getting a starting word or phrase from the crowd then using that in the poetic music they made was one of the unforgettable moment in my stay in Lalibela.

As Lalibela is a town of tourism, there are a lot of places that are very high standard and start rated hotels and restaurants. We can find these hotels inside the town and on the peripheries of the town as well. Mostly peripheries are taken that there is not much space to build in the town. But this is aside from the fact that the town I surrounded by mountain ranges from the north side (thus the slope of the site) giving the top of the mountains an amazing view down to parts of the town and the landscape on the other side of the mountains.

This amazing feature is well exploited by a place located in the far northern part of Lalibela. Ben Abeba, for example, is owned by European and Ethiopian partners. I had the privilege of meeting the owner and discussed the naming of the place and the concept behind the design. The place was designed by local architect and the design concept (form-wise) was made to imitate the highest mountain peak around that area that is visible from the top of the Ben Abeba.

The other imitation used on the design was the shape of the terraces on the west side of the complex. It is from an indigenous plant that is called ‘Adey Abeba’ which only grows all over Ethiopia showing the end of the rainy summer, around the end of September and the start of October. The name is a combination of both nationalities. Ben, meaning mountain and Abeba taken from the ‘Adey Abeba’ the local flower coming up with Ben Abeba meaning a flower on top of a mountain! Which surprisingly anyone can see when they see the design.

Like many other modern Lalibela hotels, it is a very open and well ventilated and lit space. Mostly outdoor. Built only with concrete that is cast in a very organic manner (only structural elements are shown and none or very little of other building elements). Done so that it has a very low impact on the existing ground. Vegetation is integrated with the design of the cafeteria and wooden pathways that follow the slope leading down to the campfire areas and bathrooms. Further down the slope are lodges that were being built on the final finishing level.

They also have a simplistic, environmentally friendly approach to design. Back in the cafeteria area, there are terraces on the above floor that hang out to the landscape by the west. It has an amazing overview of the landscape below. A very wide valley created by mountain ranges that surround it. We had dinner there two nights of our stay with the sunset as a background and a slow breath as a calming effect. The food was amazing (a bit expensive but worth it) and with good company, it was one of the highlights on my trip to the northern Ethiopian town of Lalibela!

Final Notes

Lalibela is a great attraction spot in Africa. Everything in this small town is new for any foreigner experiences. The monolithic churches, the town, the people, the modern hotels, the landscape, the religious artifacts all create great scenery.

10th of October 2010 done by ICOMOS Scientific Symposium named “Conserving the Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela as a World Heritage, Site: a case for international support and local participation”,

Author: Biruh Ketema , edited