In our world there are few places shrouded with as much mystery, culture, and history as Lalibela the second holiest place in Ethiopia. Designated as the 8th wonder of the world, and a UNESCO world heritage site. These rock hewn churches made in the 16th century are an ancient treasure built by Angels.
Lalibela starts with the story of a King that as a baby was shrouded in bees. The bees weren’t bees at all, but angels. The angels took him up to heaven and showed him how to make tools and how to carve churches from rock.
The story doesn’t end there. King Lalibela shared the ideas of the tools that were ahead of their time, and the humans took the day shift and the angels took the night shift and together they built amazing churches that are built with deep symbols of early Christianity. Rather than pilgrimage to Jerusalem at a time when the Christians had been kept from safely visiting Jerusalem and the other holy sites of Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the life of Jesus.
Narrow valleys carved into the rock can take you from church to church, each with it’s own story. The largest megalithic church in the world is found among the 11 rock hewn churches in Lalibela. All of them are within a couple of miles, and easy walking distance. You can easily spend a day or two. Loyal Christian orthodox priests act as guides for a negotiated price. I was trying to explain that these churches were a lot like the church caves in Cappadocia, but our guide wouldn’t have it. These were literally carved by Angels. It was great to have a guide who was so loyal.
At lunch we stopped at a little place. We were told it was Friday and so we couldn’t order the lamb. It’s fasting day. So we ordered the fasting food.
The Ethiopian fasting food is made up of various veggies. The food is designed to be eaten with your hands and is designed to be a social family experience. Beets, potatoes, lentils, cabbage, tomatoes, amazing food. It’s served on a traditional injera which is not only edible, but is how you eat the food. Rip off some injera and wrap it around whatever you’d like. Sometimes it comes in a roll so you can rip off a little and have plenty to eat a nice big pile of food. There really is a lot of variety in the food, served on large platters. Ethopian food really grew on me. I had some in Zanzibar and a few years ago in Capetown. It’s really a fun food.
Ahead of time I did a little research and came across the Tukul village hotel. I *really* enjoyed it. They were cheap enough, around $50-60 that both Paul and I got our own rooms. The nicest rooms in town. We had hot water 24×7, plenty of power, and free wifi and it almost reached to our room. I say 24×7 cause some say they have hot water, but it’s only on in the morning. One also said they had wifi, but it was a hard wire in a room behind reception. Across Ethiopia this was our favorite city and favorite hotel.
The rock churches were about a mile or two walk from the hotel. When we’d walk around, a group of kids that would grow as we’d walk would tell us stories about their lives. They were from the countryside. In a sort of boarding type situation. Groups of kids put together sharing a room. Most, basically all, don’t have money. Part of the story you hear from the kids is that they are going to school and need supplies. Notebook, dictionary, and more. If you’re around long enough you hear about how they are months back in rent and will get kicked out of their place. Some don’t have shoes. In some places I wouldn’t believe the stories, but I was convinced.
After a day of walking through the rock churches, I overheard some amazing traditional music and as we got closer found what looked like the whole of the 15,000 of the village gathered to watch the dancing in a festival. I was offered a prime seat, but instead found a spot next to some young kids. One of the children was a blind boy, and his faithful friends who he held onto, one behind and one in front. They filled me into what was going on. None of them had parents around… they too were from the countryside and were here in Lalibela for school. They told me about their need for notebooks and that they would struggle without them. After hearing the price and seeing the sincerity I walked with the boys to the little store and purchased a pack of 10 notebooks which they shared. Word got around, and we saw some kids that we’d seen earlier in the day, so we went back and decided we’d buy them out. 70 more notebooks, but this time the story was more sincere. The 3 of us will share. Ok. I’ll get a notebook for all the children, there can’t be more than 70 around here. I was warned by one of the older children that the kids will fight over the books. Paul and I weren’t sure how to take the advice we were given of giving him all the books and have him distribute them. Images of him running off, or only giving books to the older kids concerned me. We gave him a pack of 10 and committed him to promising to share. Then another and another and then Paul and I each took 10 or 20 to distribute to the growing crowd of children. To my surprise, it was as if we were handing out food to a starving crowd who hadn’t seen food in ages. Fights broke out, emotions ran high, as older kids pushed and little kids tried to find a way to get close to us. I was nearly in tears as I saw the thirst. As I saw one notebook ripped to shreds I put the rest under my shirt and said no! I wasn’t going to waste these. The needs were too great. We were beyond sincerity. This meant their ability to learn. One child then explained to me that 3 kids could share one book. I appreciated his willingness to share and gave him a book. Another tried to line up and smile. Those that were surrounding me reminded me of what I had seen earlier in the evening before all the amazing cultural dancing. It totally reminds me of chickens fighting.
At the beginning of the festival a sort of sacrament or communion moment was happening. It was loaves and fishes Ethiopian style. A large platter with a large loaf of bread was split among the elders of the group, then to the guests like myself and other adults. I shared my ripped off piece with the blind child and his friends, really felt the spirit of what was going on, that is until it never made it’s way to the children, and others were chastised for grabbing at the loaf of bread. I needed to find a way to distribute the books in a way that wouldn’t result in ripped up pages. As I walked away to see how Paul was doing I secretly pulled out a book at a time with no one looking and gave it to the children who seemed heart broken. It really lit them up. Paul had given out his books and had a similar experience of kids fighting over them. We were both really shaken by the experience and knew we’d never forget it. Paul vowed to buy a dictionary, which he did, and ended up giving away wads of local currency to the children we walked with. Hoping that they could buy some shoes for the boy with no shoes. We don’t know how it worked out, and if the dictionary purchase was a ploy. That one to me did seem that way me, but we both hope that it ultimately would be used for good.
Lalibela is in my top places of the world. It has has special place in my heart. I was only there for a couple of days, but it did change me. It also makes me consider the wonders of our modern world and make me wonder what we’re contributing to our future. How will they judge us based on our megalithic buildings propped up around economics. These walls will fall much sooner than those in this little town of Lalibela, Ethiopia and they won’t mean as much as these either.
14 thoughts on “Lalibela Ethiopia and the Famous Rock Hewn Churches”
Wow Joel what an experience! I kept thinking of our 10 cent notebooks that float around in the stores around here every time school starts. Makes you wish you could box them up and send them over. I wish our kids knew how good they have it, it’s easy for them to take things for granted. I’m sure you felt frustrated that you couldn’t help more but I’m sure you made more than a couple of children happy!
I was very emotional when I first told my wife this story and she said the same thing. All the backpacks, notebooks, and unread books sitting around the house. I’ve thought a lot about first world problems vs. third world problems. I definitely want to do more, but feel very blessed to have that in my perspective. Incredible experience.
Awesome post. Helping out in such tough circumstances is always really hard, because you’re never sure if you’re going to cause more harm than good, or if the help will reach the intended recipient or get snapped up by someone bigger and opportunistic. It’s a tough problem.
It was definitely worth the risk. I would do it again. If anything I have learned to take risks. Often I get so wrapped up in my trip and agenda, and overlook the lessons I could learn about the kids and people and meeting their needs even if in a small way. After this trip I have a new attitude.
Dear Joel: What a story. I grew up in Lalibela and I know what you mean.
You did great job.
We need thousands like you for this world.
Thank you for your kind comments. Love Ethiopia. Look forward to getting back and bringing more school supplies for the kids.
that is great but don’t forget to tell the world that Ethiopia is not a land of poverty and starving people. Tell that we have a lot to offer for the world.
If you come after may, please contact me and i will help you in any case you need.
So true. One of my favorite countries in Africa, and it’s not because of starving. They have amazing food, and some of the most important sites to see. Incredible trekking, and those Rock Churches really should be 7 wonders of the world.
My 15-yr-old daughter and I stayed at the same place in Lalibela! We loved it! Especially the chanting that could be heard in the early morning as the devoted went to worship. I just couldn’t believe that I had never heard of Lalibela before that trip. What it isn’t a part of every world history lesson is beyond me. Ethiopia is an amazing country with amazing people.
After my trip, it quickly became my favorite country in Africa due to the diversity of so much to see! I also don’t feel guilty about any money I left behind that I spent for food or gifts or really any money anywhere. Happy to help the people of Ethiopia.