Lalibela, Ethiopia’s inside-out rock churches: very special, but expensive

Lalibela is unique in the world. More specifically, the 11 rock-hewn churches that sit in the town of Lalibela, Ethiopia, are unique. As opposed to being constructed from blocks of materials from the ground up, they are literally dug inside-out from the rock bed, 11 metres down.

(Update September 2020: I have since come across the 8th-century Kailashnath Temple, part of the Ellora Caves in India, which seem to have been constructed in a similar way to Lalibela. I don’t know enough about their relative histories to comment on how ‘similar’ they are, but both are clearly remarkable.)

A little history: the churches at Lalibela were built back in the 11th century by an army of approximately 40,000 individuals across 23 years. Their architect is unknown. Even local guides insist that they were conceived of by King Lalibela through “divine assistance” – an image that came to him in a dream – and created by angels.

They are supposed to represent the city of Jerusalem. Adorned with a special cross that looks a bit like an elongated version of the Greek cross (✙), the churches are smooth, and majestic, not easily visible from above but something you walk down to. Used to the more skyward-striving, phallic churches and cathedrals of other parts of the world, the Lalibela churches seem more humble at first – but once down among them in the cool earth, one feels their might just as fully.

They receive about 25,000 visitors a year, and again, as with much of Ethiopia, one wonders how they cannot be better-known. Bet Giyorgis is the most iconic of the churches, large and possessing a particular symmetry, possible to view from a high vantage point (which also offers the best photo opportunities).

Unfortunately, while the churches are amazing to see, visiting Lalibela is very expensive. There’s an obligatory 50 USD entrance fee, which authorities justify by saying that it covers “all 11 churches”, is valid for a few days, and some of the money goes to supporting “the poor community of Lalibela”. Positive as this last bit sounds, I had learned by this point to become a bit sceptical of such claims – and my suspicions were confirmed by a local deacon of one of the churches, whom we befriended at a guesthouse. He told us that the local community sees little of that money, and expressed outrage that the house of God could be made inaccessible by the extortionate price. (It is worth noting, however, that locals can enter the churches free, so they are not priced out.)

When I’d asked the ticket sellers – a bunch of guys with round bellies who sit in the office shuffling fat wads of dollars – where the 50 USD is spent and how the town’s residents benefit, I was met with a row of smug looks. They dodged my questions again and again, unable or unwilling to give me a straight answer. You get the impression that because they can charge, they do, and as a tourist you should accept that without question. While it is fair enough to say that our incomes as “Westerners” are sufficient to afford such a price, it seems a shame that there isn’t a more student-friendly price, and the lack of transparency – something we consistently encountered in Ethiopia – is very frustrating.

The deacon also told us about how the price had been hiked to 50 USD almost on a whim a few years previously, from a previous cost of 350 birr (around 10 USD). Apparently the authorities had realised they could charge a lot more, and promptly did so without much consultation. If you want a guided tour of the site, you have to pay extra and negotiate a price directly with one of the dozens of local guides who hang around inside the church compound, which can be an exhausting process.

Rather disappointingly, the Lalibela museum, inside the church grounds, is musty, small, and not well-kept, despite housing some cool artefacts. There was also a disheartening amount of rubbish in the corners of the grounds, plastic bags and bottles which surely could have been cleaned up easily.

Paying so much for entrance, I had hoped for something really special, but while the churches themselves are incredible to behold, the high price, lack of transparency, and lack of upkeep detracted from the enjoyment somewhat. There are direct flights to Lalibela from Addis Ababa, but we went there via several buses from other towns north, and it was a very long, hot, and bumpy journey. I still feel it was worth it, but it might not be for some people who are less mobile or who are fatigued easily.

Still, the town itself is quite nice, and there’s a fabulous restaurant with amazing views over the hills called Cornucopia. Run by a Scottish woman, it’s shaped like a giant shell and serves great food looking out over the landscape. It’s a bit pricier than other places, but as someone travelling on a budget, it didn’t seem overpriced to me. And the views are worth it!

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