Lalibela: The medieval Jerusalem of Ethiopia

Sunday August 5 2018

Monumental: Tourists take a walk through some

Monumental: Tourists take a walk through some of the oldest Orthodox Church structures in Lalibela. PHOTOS BY EDGAR R. BATTE 


The offerings of Lalibela are concrete rich because the town is frozen in stone. There, you will come face to face with some of the oldest buildings on mother Earth and if you care to listen, you will hear stories that explain their relevance to elucidate about Christianity.
Travel book and guide, Lonely Planet, could not have put it better, that no matter what you have heard about Lalibela, no matter how many pictures you have seen of its breath-taking rock-hewn churches, nothing can prepare you for the reality of seeing it for yourself.
It is not only a World Heritage site, but a world wonder in the towering concrete palaces where stories of kings, queens and emperors are interwoven to let generations in on why Ethiopia is a land of origins, particularly where Orthodox churches are concerned.

The religious feel
The churches are old, compounds dotted with priests and monks, some in their evening years, holding onto wooden and metallic sticks as they slip and turn pages of prayer books made of animal hide.
For a photographer, an aerial view of the 11 churches would be a marvel because some have caves affixed to them, perhaps for sanctuary or meditation among the prayerful. Old monks clothed in old, free-fitting attire enjoy the company of the young, either teaching them from scriptures or a song in early evening hours.
The tradition of saying prayer has not changed much and has been preserved from generation to generation, spaced between almost a century. The churches are spaced by small concrete aisles through which guides will share as much information as they can with tourists.

Origin of name
The area, Lalibela, gets its name from King Lalibela whose dream was to build a ‘New Jerusalem’ in the wake of growing Muslim occupation and influence. Most of buildings were commissioned by the king who is from the Zagwe Dynasty.
It is because of this rich history that Lalibela remains important in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and deserves the moniker of being the Jerusalem of Ethiopia.
CNN’s writer Errol Barnett explains, “Nowhere does the spirituality of the church’s followers echo louder than in Lalibela. The town is brimming with devotion; throughout the churches’ compound, you will find worshipers leaning against the structures, kissing the age-old rock walls, praying quietly or reading religious texts.”