The Petra of Ethiopia

Probably my favourite spot in Ethiopia on a par with the Simien mountains was Lalibela. In the period of rule between Aksum and Gonder, Lalibela was the home of the successive kings of Ethiopia. Set high on the side of a mountain on the Ethiopian plateau, eleven churches were carved from solid rock in the 13th century, and subsequently lie recessed below ground, with interconnecting passageways, tunnels and drainage systems. King Lalibela, who did the lions share of the building, wanted to create a second Jerusalem. Comparisons are drawn to Petra in Jordan, and if it weren’t for the Inaccesbility and Ethiopia’s lack of tourism in past decades, I think it would be as popular. It made the first cut of UNESCO world heritage sites when first instituted in 1978. In recent times, the airport has been improved allowing flights to service it year round, and the road improved (to a degree) so that it is now reachable by road, although still takes a couple of days from most places.

These churches still remain places of pilgrimage and are tended to by the Coptic priests. These priests were around everywhere, including from early in the morning where we sat with them, listening to them sing in Ge’ez, an ancient religious language, along with the deacons and the school age children whose family had opted for them to pursue the religious order as their career. No need for a careers advisor if your family chooses for you before high school age.

The village was the sight of one of the better eateries I found in Ethiopia. They made great pancakes with honey and banana, which was a welcome change from dry white bread and overlooked eggs. They also made a stellar fruit juice, with mango, avocado, papaya, guava and banana. It therefore became the choice for breakfast and lunch and dinner! As it is a highlight of the tourist circuit, there definitely was more of a hand out at every opportunity. Kids would haunt the hotel entrances, ready to regale you with a story about how they have to share a book between their classmates, or have no pens. “Give me my money” was another interesting tactic. How to approach this I always have found difficult. It isn’t only the children, but elderly walking up, putting a hand out and looking longingly. It isn’t feasible to give everyone something, and the kids that do it I’m sure aren’t the kids that need it the most. Furthermore, is it just generating a industry and habit for the local population, to rely on tourists more selfless than me? I have always believed that it is best to support projects or causes that generate income or support the community as a whole, therefore bringing up the average wellbeing of all the citizens. However, you can’t help but feel callous at times. I am happy to purchase something from a hawker, if it is something I actually want. On the other hand, our society is founded on principles of giving money to the poor and sick, so should where we are matter? The range of items and services that are peddled are a bit incongruous. The standard sale of peanuts, cigarettes, and chewing gum and people offering to clean your shoes are accompanied by people sitting there with a set of scales, waiting for the weight conscious customer to come along. How often do you need to pay to weight yourself? Surely that is a low yield market to be in. However, I suppose it is better than nothing. A common sight is the sale of tooth brush sticks. Long been a part of their day to day life instead of plastic toothbrushes is short twigs about 3mm thick, which are chewed flat, and then used to scrub the teeth, with surprisingly effective results, including the endorsement of the dentists that ran our oral health section of our course.

Next day, it was back to Addis to sort out a few bits and pieces including my first attempt at going to a Rwandan embassy to sort my visa. For some reason we need a visa in advance, unlike the UK and most of Europe. However, it was going to take several days to sort, and I had a plane to catch to Uganda the next morning, so I had to put the visa on hold.

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One Response to The Petra of Ethiopia

  1. Elizabeth Wright says:

    How very interesting that the churches are almost recessed into the ground. Thanks for sharing amazing detail & photos dear.

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