Lalibela. Ethiopia’s New Jerusalem.

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Known as the Land of Origin, Ethiopia has a remarkable diversity which is reflected across its 12 provinces and nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Within its borders you find the world’s fourth-holiest Islamic city, the oldest continuously occupied town south of the Sahara, the medieval churches of Lalibela, ruined palaces and temples that date back 3,000 years. Not to mention the oldest human remains unearthed anywhere on the planet, Lucy. Yet above all, it is the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela that shine brightest.

A labyrinth of tunnels and galleries connect the 11 impressive monolithic and semi monolithic churches that are carved out of the red volcanic rock. Divided into three groups; namely the north-western churches, south-eastern churches and Saint George or Bete Glyorgis, which is possibly the most impressive of them all. Shaped like a cross and carved straight out of the mountainside, it stands apart from the other two clusters.

Legend has it that in the 12th century AD Ethiopian King Lalibela was ordered by an angel to construct a new Jerusalem after the original was conquered by Muslims. He recruited the most skilled artisans from around the land to sculpt the arches, domes, windows and passageways, paying for their work with the land, salt blocks and other currencies. It was a task that seems otherworldly and is said to have taken 23 years and six months to complete – with more than a little help from the angels.

Today a UNESCO World Heritage site, the churches are justifiably ranked as the eighth wonder of the ancient world. But they are more than impressive structures, these churches form part of the country’s living heritage. {quote}

Everyday Ethiopian Orthodox priests gather here to prayer and counsel worshippers in their hallowed chambers accessed through well-worn tunnels, stone walkways and small wooden doors. The surrounding walls potholed with temporary shelters for the pilgrims that have been drawn here for centuries, believing they will be granted the same blessing as those who visit the old Jerusalem.

Devotees in flowing white cloth sway and chant in Ge’ez, an ancient language that predates the modern-day Amharic language, while drumbeats echo off the fresco covered walls and women fall to their knees, bent deeply in prayer. The atmosphere is humbling and hypnotising, and I am swept up by the deep spiritual connection of these proud people to their biblical land of origin.

Lalibela Ethiopia

Lalibela Ethiopia

Lalibela, Ethiopia’s New Jerusalem

Ethiopia was one of the earliest nations to adopt Christianity and has historical roots dating back to the time of the Apostles. The churches of Lalibela form part of the country’s unique living heritage and are still in use today.

Priests can be found praying and counselling in their hallowed chambers, and access is gained through well-worn tunnels, stone walkways and small wooden doors, the surrounding walls potholed with temporary shelters for the pilgrims who have journeyed here over the centuries to catch sight of the New Jerusalem.

An iconic symbol of this is Saint George’s Church or Bete Glyorgis, shaped like a cross and carved out of the volcanic rock. For me, a visit here felt like a spiritual journey. You will want to visit all of the churches and the recommendation is to divide your time between the 7 northern churches on the one day, and those in the south-eastern cluster on the next. Morning prayers at Bete Emmanuel bring a rhythmic song and spiritual lilts, making it worth an early start.

As much as your time will be spent marvelling at the Churches, at the close of the day visit the architecturally impressive, of a different kind, Ben Abeba restaurant that is perched on the edge of a jagged cliff. It makes for the perfect sundowner spot and serves the delicious injera, a traditional large sourdough flatbread made out of fermented teff flour.

Young boys taking lessons with their Orthodox priest.

Ethiopia at a Glance

Ethiopia was never colonized, despite rather desperate attempts by Italy in the late 19th Century. With 82 tribes and their distinct languages and traditions making up a population of over 90 million people, each corner of the land grants a different glimpse of its people. Ethiopia’s impressive Simien and Bale Mountains are home to mammals and birds not found anywhere else in the world, including the elusive Ethiopian wolf.

In Aksum in the North in a small chapel adjacent to the Cathedral of St. Mary and guarded by a specially appointed monk, is what the country professes to be the original Ark of the Covenant.

Things to know when travelling to Ethiopia

South African citizens can get tourist visas on arrival at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport.  * The currency is Ethiopian Birr and you should draw cash from an ATM on arrival as credit cards are not widely used.  * It is important to dress modestly at religious sites, including head cover, a long skirt and scarf to cover your arms. Comfortable walking shoes make it easier to navigate the tunnels and passageways at ancient sites.  * This is a vegan’s paradise as per the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, every Wednesday and Friday are fasting days, which means no eating of meat or animal products, making for an abundance of delicious veggie meals available on menus to choose from.  * The official language is Amharic, although English is quite widely spoken. Recommended Vaccinations are Polio, Meningitis, Typhoid, Malaria and Yellow Fever and Ethiopia is an hour ahead of South Africa.  * Ethiopia is an incredible place for shopping, with traders of art, jewellery, fabrics and artefacts found in each centre.

* This post forms part of my 100x Magical Places series that over an introduction to my favourite cities.

** I travelled to Ethiopia on a media trip with Lesley Simpson Communications and Ethiopia Airlines.

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