Lalibela, a holy city hidden within the mountains on the Ethiopian highlands. Its 11 churches chiselled into the rock have made this destination an important pilgrimage site, and many have compared it to Jerusalem. In fact, in the 12th century, King Lalibela had these churches built after a trip to the Holy City, to spare his subjects the long journey. Your hosts, the priests of Lalibela, will help you understand the history of this architectural wonder. The small village, perched 1.6 miles above sea level, has remained a place of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians from Ethiopia and elsewhere for centuries. Here is how we would recommend spending one day in Lalibela.
Meditate in Beta Emmanuel Church, alongside a priest and other worshippers. Take in the straw-covered floor, the glow of the religious icons, and the scent of incense, along with the biblical frescoes; the hanging bric-a-brac, golden umbrellas, bell-shaped censers, and drums. Not to mention witnessing the fervour of the men and women gathered there. Such an experience alone justifies a trip to Ethiopia.
The Church of St. George
Visit Beit Giorgis, The Church of St. George, the most famous of Lalibela's churches. The pure lines of the structure form an impressively solemn beauty. Its flat roof in the shape of a Greek cross is flush with ground level. You have to go down a very narrow path, dug in the rock, to cross the threshold, which is about three feet below. Further afield, Beit Madhane Alem, the Church of the Saviour, with its 32 rectangular pillars, evokes the linear purity of Greek temples.
Coffee at a local home
During your one day in Lalibela, accept an invitation to have coffee at a local home. The lady of the house presides: she throws fresh herbs on the ground, burns incense stones and then, with an expert hand, roasts the green grains on a charcoal-filled brazier. In a djebena, a terracotta coffee maker, she boils the previously crushed coffee once, twice, three times. It's polite to stay and enjoy three coffees with her.
Walk away from the village down a road planted with tall eucalyptus trees, which winds along the mountainside. Splendid landscapes are dotted with small, round thatched-roof houses, and a group of baboons with huge manes. Beneath the low light of the end of the day to the east, men walk along the road, their hands holding a stick nestled behind their neck, draped in their gabis, white cotton blankets.
During your one day in Lalibela, enjoy dinner at a traditional restaurant. The staple food in Ethiopia is injera, a large flatbread made from teff flour, a grain grown here for hundreds of years. Its delicious sour taste is due to the fermentation of the dough before cooking. A multitude of dishes are served over injera: beef stew simmered with heaps of tomatoes and onions; lamb spiced with cardamom, cinnamon, and clove; and mashed dried vegetables, red lentils, or split peas. Enjoy the pleasure of sharing the same dish and the tradition of eating with your hands.