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Insider's Ethiopia: Ethiopian Rock Churches of Lalibela

Bushtracks’ guest blogger David Bristow describes the remarkable Ethiopian rock churches of Lalibela, their history and efforts to protect the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bushtracks’ August 2015 Africa by Private Jet expedition includes a guided visit to Lalibela and its hand-hewn stone churches. There is so very much to admire and to be amazed by in Lalibela; most notably the 11 churches hand-hewn out of volcanic rock nearly 900 years ago – a time when the country was a thriving, but isolated and unknown, Christian kingdom in the heart of Africa. Arriving today in Lalibela in the northeast of this mostly mountainous country is like stepping into the pages of the Old Testament.

As far back as 3,000 BC Ethiopia – then known as Punt and later Axum – was trading frankincense, myrrh, animal skins, ivory and gold with Egypt and Persia. Legend has it that Queen Sheba of Axum travelled to Israel to pay her respects to King Solomon. That would have been around 950-940 BC.

Biete Giyorgis (The Church of St. George), viewed above ground The layout of the hand-hewn rock churches is believed to represent Jerusalem, and includes the Biete Medhani Alem (the House of the Savior of the World), the largest monolithic church in the world: that is, one that is freestanding and carved entirely from solid rock. The most impressive, however, and probably the last one created, is Biete Giyorgis – the Church of St. George, patron saint of Ethiopia, carved in the plan of a Greek, or Orthodox, cross.

Starlight illuminates subterranean Biete Giyorgis (The Church of St. George)

The amazing complex of hand-hewn stone churches was, according to the legend, hacked out of solid (albeit relatively soft volcanic) rock by human workers during the day and by angels at night. The genius of these churches is how they are created out of negative space, underground, instead of conventional construction which builds with solid shapes from the ground up. It is an act of conceptualizing space and structure up-side-down and inside-out.

However, after nearly 1,000 years of exposure to sun and rain, the churches were in need of some TLC. In 1954 the Ethiopians covered them with rickety wood and tin roofs. When the entire town was declared a World Heritage Site in 1978 the UNESCO problem solvers stepped up replacing the old roofs with new.

Roofs shelter the nearly 1,000 year old structures from the elements There is nothing subtle about the new roofs. They exhibit high-tech solutions that would gladden the heart of any engineer but not so much – I suspect – that of King Lalibela who conceived of the churches while he was a guest of God in heaven (so the story goes).

The huge flying slabs are supported on great steel pylons. They certainly look like a solution arrived at by a committee. Clearly they were not inspired by the angels who apparently helped carve the churches. It looks like UNESCO has gone and built an airport when all that was needed was a carport.

View of Ethiopian landscape nearby Lalibela

My favorite place to stay is the Mountain View Hotel where you can sit on your balcony looking out over what appears to be the entire expanse of east Africa, and marvel at the buzzards, ravens, golden eagles and magnificent lammergeiers that glide back and forth while riding the winds.

Ben Abeba restaurant’s fantastic architecture The best dining experience in town is to be found at the Ben Abeba (mountain flower) restaurant. You will easily recognize it by the fantastical architecture. It’s run by a woman of Scottish origins, but she might just as well have descended to this forgotten kingdom in the restaurant spaceship. The food and ambiance are great.

Discover Ethiopia and Africa’s greatest game-viewing August 11-26, 2015 Africa By Private Jet Expedition Hosted by Bushtracks President David Tett

The first version of this article was posted on 14 Jan 2015 at 3:10 PM.


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