Ethiopia: Lalibela, 11 churches built in a day?

Ethiopia: Lalibela, 11 churches built in a day?

Ethiopia's north is like a country of its own...

Solomon was our guide when I first visited Ethiopia not long after the appallingly repressive Derg had been thrown out, not finally until 1991. He had started his career as a concierge at the Hilton hotel in Addis Ababa, and when the Emperor Haile Selassie visited the hotel he handed a leash to Solomon telling him to hold on to it until he returned. At the end of it was a lion. Not surprising when one realises that one of Haile Selassie's titles was Lion of Judah.


And so the legend goes...

Solomon accompanied us to Lalibela, a World Heritage Site, where, so the story goes, the eleven magnificent rock-hewn churches were built in 24 hours by the Archangel Gabriel. (I learnt later that they were probably built over 20 years or so). Religious life and beliefs were as I imagined them to be in Europe in medieval times.


13 months of sunshine

Half the population, about 40 million, adhere to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and their centres of worship are in the north and include Axum, Lalibela, Gonder, Bahir Dar, and Addis itself, and colourful religious processions and festivals are held throughout the year, which operates on the Julian Calendar - 13 months of sunshine is one of Ethiopia's enticements to visit.


Rich religious history

The rich religious history which manifests itself in ancient churches with murals covering their walls and in island monasteries on Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile, began in Axum centre of the Queen of Sheba's kingdom. Here are stelae up to 70 ft high, with large knotches cut all the way up their sides to allow the spirits of the dead to reach heaven.


God's chess board

Imagine also, up in the north, the opportunities for walking and trekking in the Simien Mountains, so eroded and shaped by the wind that they are called God's chess board. Imagine too, the contrast between these mountains reaching up to 14,000ft and the desolate desert of the Danakil, part below sea level and the hottest place on earth, where, believe it or not, salt is mined. You still see camel trains several hundred strong traversing it. The south is another story for another time...