A Trip Through the Stunning, Rock-Hewed Churches of Ethiopia


I found the tour to be well worthwhile. Not having to use mental bandwidth fretting about transportation, especially when traveling alone, is invaluable. Was it all seamless? Not quite. After a gorgeous, winding drive from the airport, snaking through the Amhara region, the driver dropped me off and unloaded my bag in front of a shabby-looking hotel that was not the agreed-upon Mountain View Hotel. When I complained, he shrugged: “The hotel changed,” he said. I insisted and showed him my email from Ethio Tours — he relented and we continued on.

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The wat special at Ben Abeba, a restaurant off the main highway outside Lalibela — a partnership between an Ethiopian man and a Scottish woman.

Credit
Andy Haslam for The New York Times

Fortunately, I had a good tour guide. Mareg Asmro, an affable young man who aspires to study in China someday, educated me about the history of the city as we walked toward the first of the group of 11 monolithic churches cut directly into the earth — gigantic structures hewed from single blocks of rock. “Lalibela was both a priest and a king,” Mr. Asmro said. “King Lalibela wanted to construct these churches because Ethiopian Orthodox Christians wanted to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to see the birthplace of Jesus Christ.” But many were unable to make or perished during the journey. When King Lalibela saw that, he envisioned a New Jerusalem to which the faithful could make the pilgrimage.

We spent the afternoon exploring the six churches in the first group. We began with Bete Medhane Alem (Savior of the World), considered to be the largest monolith church on earth. The reddish-brown structure is carved deep into the volcanic rock, with the roof following an imaginary line where the natural landscape would have crested. Everything is built from the same rock, including doors, windows and pillars. Within the cool, dusky interior, heavy carpets are thrown on hard ground for the services that take place.

From there, we passed through various series of trenches and tunnels, going from one holy building to the next. Some were larger than others; each had a priest who would go from time to time behind a giant curtain hung within each church. “Behind that is the holiest of holies,” Mr. Asmro explained in a hushed tone — replicas of the ark of the covenant that only the priests were allowed to view.

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Morning prayers at Bete Giyorgis.

Credit
Andy Haslam for The New York Times

They were all impressive, but none quite as markedly so as the final church, Bete Giyorgis (Church of St. George), which is set slightly apart from the others. It’s this very separation that makes this church so dramatic: The church, which suddenly plunges dozens of feet below ground level has a tawny exterior mottled with green and yellow moss, and, from above, forms the shape of a cross. It can be entered like the others, and requires a downhill trek into what feels like the jaws of the earth to reach the front entrance.

Our final stop, on the outskirts of Lalibela, was the Asheton Maryam Monastery, which we reached after a 20-minute car ride. The monastery, while not particularly active, was still beautiful, carved into the side of the hill and accessible via a narrow path. Before parting, I tipped Mr. Asmro 500 birr for the two days we were together — a little less than $20.

While the churches are Lalibela’s biggest attraction, they weren’t its only appeal: I also had to eat. A lunch at the Seven Olives Hotel one afternoon proved to be tasty and economical: My meal of gomen tibs, sautéed vegetables served with a generous portion of sour, spongy injera bread, was delicious (55 birr). A less traditional but inventive fusion meal can be had at Ben Abeba, a restaurant off the main highway — a partnership between Habtamu Baye, an Ethiopian man, and Susan Aitchison, a Scottish woman.

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A hermit cave at Bete Giyorgis.

Credit
Andy Haslam for The New York Times

The physical structure of Ben Abeba resembles a hulking spaceship from an old television show — simultaneously futuristic and charmingly outdated. There are numerous levels and various ramps that made me feel like I was trapped in an Escher drawing. It’s a fun place, and fortunately, the food isn’t bad, either. I ordered a half portion of the shepherd’s pie (109 birr) and mixed it with some hot, slightly bitter berbere spice paste that was on the table. The classically Ethiopian flavor worked well with the heavy, savory pie.

It was enough food to carry me through the next day. I had left Lalibela, transferred through Addis Ababa again and was now in Dire Dawa, the city with the closest airport to Harar. It would be a one- or two-hour drive to Harar — I just had to figure out how to get there. The hotel I was staying at offered an airport transfer for $50 each way, which seemed a bit steep. I headed instead to the bus station in Dire Dawa, and saved a decent bit of money by hiring a private car there (400 birr, less than $15).

My Fanta-swilling driver pulled small, green leaves from a plastic bag next to him during the whole journey. He was eating khat (pronounced chaat), a small shrub endemic to the area, the consumption of which provides an amphetaminelike rush. He offered me a few choice, tender young leaves, which I tried: It was bitter, with a similar effect to the coca I had tried while traveling in Peru (like coca, it’s a controlled substance in the United States).

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