Excerpt from the African Icons Book chapter: The Stone Churches of Lalibela. Ethiopia.
Encompassed by the enemies of their religion, the Ethiopians slept for nearly 1,000 years, forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten.
Edward Gibbon, C18 historian
The Road to Lalibela
Flying from Addis Ababa via Gondar to Lalibela the landscape resembles a finely quilted patchwork of gold and green fields, the plains geometric and the mountains all curlicue. Over them are appliqued zigzagging blue-green rivers. Ethiopia is a veritable breadbasket; it has always had enough food. It is just that sometimes food has been used as a political weapon in this country of many tribes.
Approaching the fabled holy town of Lalibela, things appear much more typically African than the rest of the region. Firstly it is noticeably drier, with thorn trees strewn about and mountains that crowd the horizon.
In the valleys on the sides of the lower foothills there are cattle, maize fields and circular wattle-and-daub huts. As the terrain climbs sharply, wheat replaces maize, stone huts replace mud and thatch, and sheep and donkeys replace the cattle. Where the valleys and spurs begin to steepen, fields become stonewalled terraces, much like you will see in the foothills of Nepal. Here a similarity between these two spiritual lands becomes apparent.
Once you enter the town of Lalibela it becomes evident that this was once a much more prosperous town. King Lalibela of the Zagwe dynasty came to power in the mid-1200s, around when the famous stone churches were built. However, in the mid-1600s following civil war the power shifted to Gondar when Lalibela went into a devout state of isolated meditation until modern times.
The Missing King
We arrived after a ragged journey and looked forward to unwinding at the Mountain View Hotel. But our guide from Vast Ethiopia Tours, Mesfin Destaw (there are no conventional surnames in Ethiopia; you take your father’s first name as your second) had other ideas. Today was an important day in Lalibela, the festival of King Naktolab, successor to King Lalibela and so the second most important religious festival of the year.
Have a look at our video below:
We stayed at Mountain View Hotel while photographing and researching this chapter.
The Best Views and Service in Town
Ethiopia was, as we have noted, isolated for the better part of two millennia and even today Lalibela looks like a scene from the 18th century. If, however, you want to fast forward to today’s world in this ancient town, to a place with good food, comfortable beds and great views – then Mountain View Hotel is the spot.
It also, coincidentally, has the best coffee in town. Treat yourself one evening to the time-honoured coffee ceremony, the glue of Ethiopian culture. The coffee ceremony is not rushed, it takes close to an hour to roast the beans, grind them down by hand, brew the coffee and then serve it with flat bread and sharp barberry (berberis) sauce.
Apart from the hotel being the best bed in town, there are few places in the world where you can stand on your veranda, take in the wide sweep of mountainside and valley stretching to the far horizon and watch birds play: falcons and buzzards, crows and ravens, but also the princes and lords of the mountain skies, golden eagles and lammergeiers.
Whatever your ideas of visiting here, you can place your body and spirit in the more than capable hands of Vast Ethiopia Tours, who handled all our booking and ground movements, as well as providing a wonderful and knowledgeable local guide, without whom we would have floundered like lost souls in limbo.