Angels in the mountains
Lalibela is notoriously inaccessible.
It used to take travellers four days by mule to reach the small town, which is perched at an altitude of nearly 3000 metres in the Ethiopian Highlands. As recently as the late nineties, Lalibela was only accessible by way of a winding dirt road which was frequently impassable in the rainy season. Today, however, a better gravel road has been constructed and Ethiopian Airlines runs daily flights to Lalibela. Domestic flights in Ethiopia are relatively inexpensive – approximately $40 for a one hour flight – and this is now how most travellers arrive in the remote town.
Although the daily flights have taken some of the romance out of travel to Lalibela, the journey does not have to be without thrill, narrow escape, and adventure.
The guesthouse I was staying at in Gonder arranged for a taxi to pick me up and take me to the airport to catch my flight to Lalibela. The taxi was late. Very very late. I waited on the street while the owner of the guesthouse made a few frantic calls, the pitch of his voice raising higher and higher while he spoke to the taxi driver, all the while reassuring me that I still had plenty of time to get to the airport.
A small rusty blue taxi finally pulled up to the guesthouse. It was on its last legs. We made it about two minutes down a small hill to the main road when the taxi sputtered to a stop. The taxi driver began searching for another car that could make it all the way to the airport.
There were several more frantic phone calls and finally another rusty blue taxi pulled up in front of me. By this time I was running seriously late and someone at the airport called my taxi driver to ask where we were. There was an error in translation, and tension mounted when the taxi driver mistakenly told me that the plane had already left.
We drove the rest of the way to the airport at breakneck speed, dodging donkeys, herds of children, and people on their way to work.
As I got out of the car and walked to the entrance of the airport, I could hear the taxi driver behind me shouting “faster, faster, walk faster”. When I arrived to check in, the worker behind the desk looked up and said, “you must be Megan, you are the last to check in, where have you been?”
Lalibela was worth the frantic ride to the airport. It would also be worth four days’ travel by mule.
The small village is home to the unofficial eighth wonder of the world, thirteen churches which are approximately 800 years old and which have been carved out of the mountainside. The churches have been constructed below ground level, and form an underground mountain village complete with moats, secret passageways, windows, stairs, and hidden rooms where the priests live and sleep.
The churches are, in a word, unbelievable. Their existence defies logic and it is difficult to imagine how they could have been built. Legend says that angels helped to build the churches in a single night. I don’t know about that, but there is definitely a magic in the air at Lalibela.
When I arrived, Lalibela was bustling with visitors. In Ethiopia, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th and many pilgrims walk for over 500 kilometres and for several months through the mountains to celebrate the festival in Ethiopia’s holy land. These travellers were beginning to gather in the city, making frequent early morning visits to the churches, asking the priests for blessings, and camping under the stars in the town square.
In the warm blurry light of the early morning I sat with my back pressed up against rock outside of bet giyorgis, the most spectacular of the churches, watching streams of believers remove their shoes and bend down to kiss the threshold. Some visitors so young they had to be pulled along by their mothers, and some so old their legs were twisted and guided by canes. Some wearing fine white cloth and others in clothing that has been worn, stained, and repaired countless times. All united in common belief and eager to touch the exquisitely beautiful buildings constructed from mountain.
It is almost enough to make one believe in angels.