Descend into greatness

Amrita Nair Ghaswalla | Updated on January 17, 2018 Published on July 01, 2016

Holy trail One of the churches built by King Lalibela some 900 years ago shutterstock

Thy kingdom come The Lalibela churches are thronged by worshippers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church by special arrangement

A cluster of 11 monolithic cave churches in Lalibela is the Promised Land to many Ethiopians

An ancient world frozen in stone is how the guide described it and the image of Lalibela gets etched in memory. In the heart of Ethiopia is one of its holiest towns, known as Lalibela, where a group of 11 monolithic rock-hewn churches stand tall, a testimony to the artistic and engineering genius of its people.

Though the passing centuries have reduced Lalibela to a remote village, it was once the thriving capital city of a medieval dynasty where, some 900 years ago, safe from the prying eyes and plundering hands of hostile interlopers, a noble king fashioned a secret marvel.

Named after King Lalibela, who ruled Ethiopia at the end of the 12th century, the churches are located on a set of rolling hills. But there is no spire or steeple in sight for miles around the green mountainous landscape, where farmers labour to cultivate their patches of stony fields. And then you understand why. As you ascend, the bedrock opens up to trenches 10m deep, with these amazing monolithic structures set in the middle, below ground level. Rather than being built up, these structures have been carved down.

King Lalibela’s goal was to create a ‘New Jerusalem’ for those who could not make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Legend has it that an angel came and asked the king to build the churches, and that both men and angels worked together to construct them. While the men worked through the day, the angels toiled through the night.

Beauty in simplicity

The towering edifices seem to be of superhuman creation: in scale, in workmanship and in concept. Not just hewn into the rock, some structures have been excavated from the surrounding rock. Whereas most civilisations would quarry the rock, transport it and build with it, at Lalibela they did the exact opposite: they excavated. By cutting deep trenches into the rock, they created pits, each containing a massive block of stone joined at the base.

A complex labyrinth of tunnels and narrow passageways links the churches, which also boasts an extensive system of drainage ditches. Many of these churches are free-standing, while others are still attached to the surrounding rock on one side or at the top. Most have priests or deacons going about their timeless business.

The structures are simple but beautifully carved, with perfect door openings, windows, arches, pillars, sometimes decorated with reliefs and frescos. Some churches have wall paintings, others have crosses adorning the windows. Small round caves and chambers dot the walls of the courtyard, and some of these wound up as graves for pilgrims and monks.

On the walls are mouldings of various shapes and sizes, and different forms of crosses, while some windows proudly bear early signs of the swastika. One arch has a Star of David etched on it, while another has a Maltese cross. Yet another has a sun with a smiling human face, while a colourful fresco with Mary on a donkey accompanied by Joseph adorns another wall.

Each church has its own priest, who is happy to oblige camera-toting tourists by appearing in the doorway in colourful brocade robes, holding elaborate crosses, usually of silver. For those inclined, they get to kiss the cross, while the priest will tap it on the back of those who kneel.

One of the churches, Bet Maryam, has a tall stone pillar on which King Lalibela ostensibly wrote the secrets of the churches’ construction. The pillar is covered all the way to the top in white linen, with gold piping, and only the priest may look on it. Another legend has it that the stone pillar has every individual’s past and future written on it. The dusty red curtains around the pillar permanently cover the linen, refusing to give out the secret, and neither does the resident monk.

Magic step by step

The chiselled creations have turned this mountain town into a place of pride and pilgrimage for worshippers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. However, descending the steep, rocky and rough steps at Lalibela requires some dexterity. There are self-appointed helpers outside each church, eager to take you down the steps, as well as watch your shoes.

The best example of the incredible architecture at Lalibela is the Church of St George, located on the western side of the cluster of churches. Cut 40 ft down into the mountain, it is a huge block of reddish volcanic rock, with a roof in the shape of a Greek cross. Unlike some of the other churches, St George is plain inside. A white swaying curtain shields the sanctum sanctorum. In the shadows, we are told, is the tabot, or a copy of the Ark of the Covenant, containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. Indiana Jones, in the 1981 Steven Spielberg film Raiders of the Lost Ark, is seen carrying away the glistening Ark that contains the two tablets.

If you want to walk into a pitch dark tunnel and find light again, this is the place to be.

(The writer was in Lalibela at the invitation of Ethiopian Airlines)

Travel log

Getting there

Ethiopian Airlines flies from Mumbai or Delhi to Addis Ababa twice daily, and then onwards to Lalibela.


Mount View Hotel in Tukul village; http://mountainviewhotel.com/


The traditional injera (a dosalike pancake) is eaten with chicken, lamb curry and vegetables. Wash it down with local beer or tej, a honeybased alcoholic drink.


Extend your trip by a day and fly to Bahir Dar. On a gravel road to the southeast of Bahir Dar, you can see the spectacular Blue Nile Falls, which is also known as Tiss Issat (water that smokes).

Published on July 01, 2016
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