Ain’t no Disneyland

Church of St. George, Lalibela

Church of St. George, Lalibela

As Josef drives us from the airport into what is allegedly the town of Lalibela, one thing becomes clear: we are in the middle of nowhere. Lalibela is a town hidden amid thick forests and muddy hills in north Ethiopia and looks like the filming location for The Mosquito Coast.

The van gets stuck in the mud several times allowing us to glimpse the seemingly random assortment of shops and stores that line the steep road. A wooden-thatched café called John’s, a souvenir hut, an unlikely electronics shop, and billboards that promise hotels whose existence seems impossible. As with every town and village and city we’ve been in, the roads are packed with people undertaking a variety of activities. Here, many of them are cloaked in white robes.

Josef stops the van in front of a sheet metal wall, “here we are.” The doors inch open as if he’d just activated them with the password. Inside, we hoist our backpacks and Josef brings us through a covered vestibule into a back courtyard which is as tranquil as the road is hectic. He shows us into a room. “Meet me in the restaurant in ten minutes.” He points vaguely.

Were it not for the eleven world-renowned rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, it would probably be nothing more than a nameless town in the middle of Ethiopia. But between 1181 and 1221 King Lalibela (get it?) ordered the churches carved out of rocks, laid out and named to represent a sort of mini-Jerusalem and as a center for pilgrimage. This is the official story, but since the churches vary in style and artisanship, not to mention state of decay, there’s a solid chance that the structures were at least begun at different times.

What is indisputable is that each of the churches are carved out of one rock, some of them are monolithic (stand completely alone), and some are semi-monolithic (from one rock but attached to the earth behind it). And that they are all, in their own way, indescribably magnificent.

The churches are a UNESCO world heritage site, and continue to be the focal point of religious pilgrimages and a source of universal mystery. They are why most people visit Lalibela and indeed why Mark and I have come. In fact, it’s pretty much the reason we came to Ethiopia. Our trip has been one big adventure, with ups and downs, hyenas, bouncy prop planes, the insanity of Addis, questionable food choices, brothels, dysentery, lepers, and unforgettable views from ancient mountaintop monasteries. And now, at the end, we get to see some of the World’s most incredible man-made structures.

Problem: we only have one afternoon.

Due to a series of transportation mishaps – Ethiopia’s buses should be on an FBI hit list – we are not able to spend the planned three days in Lalibela, but rather we have a day. We arrived at 9 am and have to leave tomorrow at 7 am for our flight back to Addis Ababa. The churches are open from 6-12, and then 2-6, and since tomorrow is Sunday, visits are only possible if we want to join in a three-hour mass. I want adventure, not a three-hour flashback of Sister Helena whapping my knuckles with a ruler for laughing at the Stations of the Cross.

Josef promises that our time constrictions will not be a problem and he outlines his plan as we sit in the restaurant and glance over a menu offering “steak meat,” “spikgety,” and “honey porrig.” We’ll do four of the churches before noon and the four other open churches at 2 pm.

Annnnnd Go!

Josef is a small man, bald, always smiling, and sleepy-eyed. He constantly does the peculiar intake of breath that the Ethiopians do, to either parenthesize something of importance or a response. The sound you might make if someone told you that two gibbons were making love in your hair. A woman we’ve met at the hotel joins us for the tour. Her name is Jen. Josie. Jackie. Something with a J.

Josef moves fast. He scales the mud hills explaining the story of Lalibela as the three of us huff through the high altitude and exhaust fumes. The townies attach themselves to us like barnacles and Josef discards the more persistent with chirps I’ll never understand.


In background (stupid roof)

The first church we come to sits at the bottom of a sharp deep hole in the earth. It is remarkable, especially when considering that it’s only one of eleven, was done completely with hammers and chisels, and that Sister Helena and her ruler are nowhere near it. The roof of the church still maintains the original rocky terrain that helps it blend into the surrounding land.

A tip-off to the church’s existence is an enormous, hokey, stupid, out-of-place, man-made monstrosity of a roof perched above it. It looks as though it should be protecting the Philadelphia Eagles from rain rather than “protecting” a world heritage site from further decay due to the elements. If you’re British, just replace “Philadelphia Eagles” with “Manchester United” or one of those other kicky ball sport teams.

What you’re imagining right now is probably spot-on. The roofs are so inapposite that they can’t be described without aggravated hyperbole. They are attached to the rock by thick metal beams that call to mind a structure in St. Louis or Kansas City, not Northern Ethiopia.

Surely the good people of UNESCO know the extent or potential harm of acid rain and other elements on these structures. I am sure – read: pray to Vishnu – that they studied this a thousand times over before deciding that the best course of action was to cover the churches with these roofing disasters. Churches, by the way, that had stood for about 800 years with seeming little problem before the good folks at UNESCO stopped by.

Josef makes several jokes about the roofs, and it’s clear that he doesn’t view the need for them as dire as the need for UNESCO to stop making home decorating choices for the world. Still, a rather genial man, he does admit that he knows nothing about acid rain and that these roofs could be necessary. But he says it without the smile that’s been on his face since we met him.

I suppose the real anger or disappointment we feel about the roofs is that it is evidence of Disneyland. That is, the roofs seemed to embody an invasion of the regulation so common in the western world on our adventure. It might be like seeing a McDonald’s along the Camino de Santiago or pushing through a turnstile onto the Great Wall of China. It takes away some of the adventure. One of the reasons this trip has been so exciting is that things are unique, raw, and adventurous. Though it is a little more adventure than we bargain for at times, at least it’s been done without a net.

We’ve said it many times: “This ain’t no Disneyland,” meaning an experience was not guided, safe, or oversaw. There were no cable lines keeping us aloft as we climbed into Debre Damo, the mountaintop monastery. The hyenas we fed weren’t behind bars or declawed. The villages and tribes people we’ve seen haven’t been movie sets and actors. It’s all been real. And while the roofs don’t detract from the beauty of the Lalibela churches, they give an unsettling itch about things to come. How long will it be before places which have offered real life adventure for hundreds of years will become watered down family-style versions that everyone with a motorized scooter and a Mastercard can enjoy.


Ain't no Disneyland, folks

Ain’t no Disneyland, folks

Josef obviously moonlights as a mind reader because he then takes us on a tour which dispels any Disneyland anxiety we might feel. Our adventure continues. We find very soon that visiting the churches is not a watered down affair in the least. Visiting the churches involves a serious hike, going through mazes of rock alleys, caves, and steep rock-carved steps into hidden passages.

Josef leads us through it all with a smile. After one of the smaller churches, Josef says with ease, “We must walk for a while through a dark tunnel. So do you have a torch?” Sharp inhale.

“Yes!” Mark holds up his flashlight.

“You should put it away, it’s more fun in the dark.”


Josef points to a crude wooden ladder reaching into the dark depths of a hole in the floor of the rock. Josef goes first, I second, Mark third, and Something with a J fourth. In seconds we are in total darkness following Josef’s voice and stubbing our toes on rocks.

“Big rock on the right. Careful,” Josef says.

I squeeze past the boulder on the right.

“Is anyone wearing sandals?” Sharp inhale.


“Good. There’s something on the left, don’t kick it or it might bite you.” Sharp inhale. “Hahahahaha. I make only sport with you.”

The churches themselves are fascinating. They are all different. Some of them are large, some so small that only three people can go inside at once. The walls are covered in tapestries, carved bas reliefs, and some of the best known examples of early Ethiopian Christian art. The churches, all Ethiopian churches in fact, are split into three sections: place of worship, communion area, and the Holiest of Holies – where the Ark of the Covenant symbolically sits in every church. And in one for real about an hour flight north. Something with a J grumbles because women aren’t allowed in the communion area.

The churches are detailed to such a degree that to lay them all out here would be a book, so I’ll give the overview. Among the churches we see a baptismal pool carved into the rock, rock-carved dugouts filled with the bones of pilgrims, symbolic graves carved out for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and one that Josef says is “Adam’s grave.” When we look at his askew, he says, “Yes, Adam. The first man.”

In some of the windows are carved Aryan swastikas. A relief of the Passion of the Christ elicits a smirk from me, but fortunately not enough to evoke the ghost of Sister Helena. Meanwhile, getting from church to church entails slippery walkways above deep caverns, hillside climbs into ancient villages, and passing centuries-old cemeteries under fig trees.

Church of St. George upon approach (note: no stupid roof)

Church of St. George upon approach (note: no stupid roof)

Any worry about the Disneyland factor evaporates when we reach the church of St. George. It is ominous in the ground, the trek down a ten minute affair through narrow caverns and trenches. Once down there, we look up at the church reaching out of the ground. This church does not yet have a UNESCO roof. Inside, there are two 800 year old olive wood chests, said to have been carved by Lalibela himself, and locked with two corkscrew keys that the guard is carrying around his neck.

We walk out of the church and the first of many white-robed worshipers are coming down into the cavern to pray. We know it’s time to go. It’s been a busy afternoon, and as we head back up through the caverns to get out, Mark says for what will be the last time this trip:

“Ain’t no Disneyland.”

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