Lalibela and my soul to keep

Having read the excellent sci-fi novel “My Soul To Keep” by Tananarive Due, I was familiar with the town of Lalibela which featured as “the city of priests and rock-hewn churches” in the story. As much as I had trouble to stop reading this great novel, I found it difficult to leave the “holiest town of Ethiopia” after the visit.

Almost forgetting to feed ourselves, we pivoted between rock-hewn churches, the market and our guest house. Lalibela was planned to mark the grand finale of the Ethiopian trip. And it lived up to our expectations.

Priest at Lalibela

Upon arrival, we decided to sleep in the most inexpensive guest house, located spot in the center of the local market. Our guidebook claimed that the rooms came without windows, but the toilets would “come with a view”. Having a courtyard a bit elevated, we could only get glimpses at a potentially scenic view over the market and other parts of downtown Lalibela. Definitely, our rooms situated around this terrace were windowless. And the squat toilets definitely came with a fantastic view. If they would have been a bit less dirty and stinky, we might have wanted to sit there enjoying the sunset view with a drink.

Known for its monolithic, rock-hewn churches, Lalibela is a favorite tourist spot for those visiting Ethiopia. There are thirteen churches, which were built during the 12th and 13th century. Today, this UNESCO World Heritage Site separated in various areas, unfortunately most of the historic buildings are covered by roofs, which require ugly, large steel poles. As much as the historic architecture is interesting, the new, protective construction is plain ugly and upsetting.

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela were called the “Eight Wonder of the World”, which made me smile – since a few days ago, the same labeling was applied for the stelaes of Aksum that we visited. Moreover, during my round-the-world trip, I have encountered numerous advertisements calling a certain place the “Eight Wonder”. So, I went to Wikipedia and found a pretty good list about sites being dubbed as such. To my surprise, I visited many of them – whew!


Particularly impressive and beautiful is the Church of St. George. Located in the middle of a giant rock, it is very impressive to see and analyze how this structure has been hewn out of the surrounding stone. Being armed with (

Russian language) Wikipedia printouts and the “Lonely Planet” guidebook, we had all the necessary gear to explore the various areas ourselves. Again, we had to fend off official guides who charge the published fee of more than 20 US dollars. Moreover, the guidebook claimed “you would be foolish to explore the sites on your own” – recommending to hire tour guides. An odd recommendation which the local guides obviously knew about and therefore we saw many backpackers shelling out this outrageous fee.


However, people reading other guidebooks – the French, for example, travel with the “Petit Futé” or the “Guide du Routard” – did not consider for a single moment to take up a tour guide for the visit. Discovering and exploring the sites was definitely more fun than following blindly a local. Sure, we may have missed smaller details – but the grand picture of the area unveiled steadily as we were walking through a maz

e of tunnels, caves and churches.

Downtown Lalibela

Leaving Lalibela next day, we visited the morning mass at Nakuta La’ab, which is a monastery carved in the opening of the mountain. It is named after its founder, the King Nakuta La’ab, who succeeded King Lalibela. Evgeny and Tatjana decided to stay outside of the church since a mass was in progress. I followed our driver, who acted as a facilitator, through the praying crowd to see the priest of the church. He did halt the mass so that I could enter the building and get some information about its features, such as paintings and artifacts.

Spotting the waiting people outside the church was definitely making me feel uncomfortable. However, both the priest and my driver-translator did not show signs of wanting to speed up my visit. Eventually, we left after fifteen minutes when I was a bit reluctant to wade my way back out through the impatient crowd.

Finally, we were on our way back to Addis Ababa, where we arrived after a night stop in the town of Kombolcha to break the long journey. Organizing air-tickets to Rwanda was next on our agenda. Luckily, all the relevant airlines were located in one big complex, the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa. Quite a shock to stumble through this posh castle, full of “important” people and overpriced services. After one hour, we secured tickets on Kenya Airways – flying from Ethiopia to Rwanda via Kenya. This itinerary did cost less than half of what Ethiopian Airways asks for a direct flight. Weird airline tariffs…

After spending nine days eating local food, we did enjoy arriving in in the capital city where pizzas are hanging from the trees and spaghettis grow in every garden. Well, almost – but you get the picture about our dinner that night.

Make sure to come back to read about the next leg of our trip, the capital town of Kigali in Rwanda. Definitely a much different experience from Ethiopia in various ways.

Morning prayers in a rock-hewn church near Lalibela

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