For some general information, here are some excerpts from the Lonely Planet – Ethiopia & Eritrea chapter on the Historical Circuit:
“No matter what you have heard about Lalibela, no matter how many pictures you have seen of its breathtaking rock-hewn, its dimly lit passageways or its hidden crypts and grottoes, nothing on earth can prepare you for the reality of seeing the new Jerusalem for yourself. It is truly a wonder of Africa.
A night vigil there, during one of the big religious festivals, when white-robed pilgrims in their hundreds crowd the courtyards of the churches and priests in royal robes wade through the crowds to worship in a church made by the hands of the angels, is to witness Christianity in its most raw and powerful form.
Legend has it that a poisoned man was taken to three different levels of heaven by a group of angels. After showing him a stunning city of rock-hewn churches, God commanded him to return to earth and build a new Jerusalem. His mission was to recreate what he had seen in heaven.
Scholars agree that the churches date to the time of the reign of King Lalibela in the 12th or 13th century. After the king’s death, the site of the rock churches, Roha, was renamed in honour of Lalibela. Local tradition explains how this massive undertaking was accomplished in a relatively short period of time. The faithful believe that when the exhausted workers retired for the night, an army of angels descended from the heavens to work under cover of darkness.
Many of the churches were constructed from the top down; by removing the surrounding rock and then hollowing out the interior rooms. The masons of Aksum to the north of Lalibela, had long shown exceptional skills working with stone, and there are clear characteristics of Aksumite style on several of the churches.”
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
Rather than taking a taxi to the nearby airport, we chose to walk with our light backpacks. We left just as the sun was rising and the night watchman from our hotel accompanied us. It was good to stretch our legs, but even better to avoid the highway robbers the taxi drivers have become, overcharging passengers for the 3-minute ride. The young watchman seemed impressed that we were unwilling to pay the sky-high fares that had become the norm.
Just as we were about to enter the domestic airport terminal, the power went out completely and we had to wait outside until it was restored. The terminal is fairly modern and the airplanes are state of the art, but nothing works without electricity. I worried that our flight might be delayed, and that we would miss our connecting flight in Gondar, but as it turned out, our plane flew directly to Lalibela instead.
After landing we connected with a fellow from our hotel and after he rounded up some other passengers, we set off in a minivan across the arid plains and up into the neighbouring hills. Now this was the Ethiopia I remembered from my past visit. The mud huts were few and far between, the landscape seemed almost deserted. It wasn’t until we were near to the crest of the hills that we began to see dozens of people making their way into Lalibela on foot.
The driver told us that it was market day and it was clear that many of these people had risen long before dawn in order to walk into Lalibela and sell their goods at the market. I felt particularly spoiled as we whizzed past them in our vehicle, kicking up clouds of dust as we passed. After dropping off some of the other passengers at various guesthouses around the town of 14,000, the minivan drove along a road on the crest of a large out-cropping and I could see our hotel perched at the very end. It was called Mountain View Hotel, and I was easy to see what inspired the name.