Africa Ethiopia

The Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela

Lalibela had been on my bucket list for a long time. I don’t even remember where I first came across it, but I saw a picture of the beautiful stone-hewn churches and I thought they looked SO cool. Since I had to fly to and from Addis as part of the Eritrea and Djibouti trip, I knew I had to make the trip to see them!

Let’s talk about safety. Ethiopia has been fairly volatile lately – while I am certainly not an expert, my understanding is that this is a ripple effect from the peace agreement with Eritrea. The northern region, the Tigray, was not pleased with how conciliatory the agreement was toward Eritrea after they had spent so many of their resources in that fight, and it erupted into civil war. The US State Department had this area as a Level 4 while I was there, and while I felt completely safe in Lalibela, I was also conscious that the fighting was not far from where we were. It’s definitely worth doing your research before planning anything in Northern Ethiopia at the moment.

The churches of Lalibela were built between the seventh and thirteenth centuries. Ethiopia is orthodox Christian, and part of that historically involved going to Jerusalem for a pilgrimage. In one of the changes of power, it became unsafe for the Ethiopians to go to Jerusalem, so they responded by building this site to be their own version of Jerusalem in Africa.

One of the coolest aspects of this site is that it is still actively used as a site of worship! While we were there, we saw plenty of locals coming to pray, and outside of one group of Russian tourists, we were the only foreigners for pretty much our entire tour. Our hotel had set up a tour guide to take us around, which was a great way to get a little more context.

The architecture is amazing. Pictured below is the most famous of the churches – this is the Church of Saint George, which is the one I had always seen in pictures. This one is the only one that doesn’t have the roof covered, so it’s easier to see the unique shape of the building.

We had two nights and one full day in Lalibela before we headed back to Addis for another stopover. Fun fact, I’ve spent so much time flying around this region of Africa on this trip that my flight tracking app is convinced that Addis Ababa is my home airport. As of the time of writing, I’ve been on 26 flights in 2024, and ADD was involved in 10 of those flights!

We booked a driver and tour guide for our third stopover, which was a nice way to see some of the parts of the city that were a bit farther out from the center. They took us up to Entoto Park, which had great views of the city and seemed to be a pretty cool recent development project. It reminded me of an Ethiopian take on N Seoul Tower, with restaurants and bars and walking trails for people to come spend time. Towards the end of our visit there, it started raining, so we ended up taking a driving tour through the main market before we headed back to the airport for our next flight.

All in all, Ethiopia was fascinating. It wasn’t always the easiest place to travel in – when you’re the only tourists around, it means there’s always a sense of being under observation – but it has some of the most amazing sites out there. This region, along with Eritrea and Djibouti, was such a good introduction to Africa, and I can’t wait to explore more of the continent in the future!

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