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Ethiopia 1970's stampI must confess that my first walk in the town of Lalibela made me uneasy about doing the mountain trekking trip. The altitude, the heat and my lack of fitness left me more than once gasping for air. My heart was beating fast, and I had to stop frequently to catch my breath.
I mentioned before that my bag was lost during my flight to Lalibela. The day after my arrival I went to check for it and the Ethiopian Airlines people told me that they had found it, but they had sent it back to Addis by mistake!
OMG, another day without spare clothes, my sleeping bag liner, my energy snacks, etc. They said the bag wouldn’t reach town until the next day just when I had to start my trekking trip! I was extremely mad but the matter was out of my hands, and more than complaining there was nothing I could do…
On the other hand the lost bag gave me the perfect excuse to reconsider my walk in the mountains. I decided that without the supplies I wouldn’t go up there. To be true a part of me wanted not to recover the luggage so I wouldn’t have to face the shame of not being able to endure the walk.
In the meantime I could go and check the churches and see how I’ll handle walking another day in Lalibela.
In the morning I went to see the northwestern group of churches.
This group consists of 6 rock churches, some of them really big. To reach them you walk for about 5 minutes from downtown and enter to the ticket office where you pay your fee and some security guards will check your bags and probably check your body too for guns (there are female guards for women).
To the side of the ticket office there is a small museum that contains some relics like crowns, priest gowns, manuscripts, and even wooden models of the churches that were made when planning their construction.
Of the six churches that belong to this group, Bet Medhane Alem (Church of the World Savior) is the biggest one and also it is said to be the biggest rock hewn church in the world. It is also the oldest of all of them.
ethiopia 1970's Medhane Alem stampThe building is massive and it has 34 columns on the outside, and 38 on the inside to support the roof. Some of the outside columns are replicas of the originals that collapsed a long time ago and you’ll notice the difference easily.
Some of these churches have been covered by a roof to protect them from the elements and preserve them for future generations. The structure built in 2008 by UNESCO is hard to avoid when taking photographs of the outside, I wish they had come up with a better solution…
You can see old aerial photos of the churches before the roof was built and also the general layout in this interesting document from 1967 (.pdf).
Zamani Project - Bet Medhane Alem Elevation
Zamani Project - Bet Medhane Alem 3D Model
Every time you step inside a church, you must take off your shoes. The floor is covered with old rugs that make the walk much smoother. These rugs were famous for being infected with fleas, but it seems they have eliminated them once and for all. I can’t say the same of Lalibela’s hotels though… Since I didn’t have my bed liner or bug spray with me (thanks Ethiopian Airlines!), I caught fleas that made the rest of my stay in Ethiopia pretty itchy…
When you enter the church you are inside the hole where it was built, so you are too close to the structure. From that point of view it is hard to appreciate the whole volume of it, but it is a really extraordinary work of art.
No matter your religion, the church has values beyond beliefs. It is extremely important from many points of view, as architecture, art, history and culture, and I hope it can stand the test of time. In fact, when I was in the mountains, I spoke with an Ethiopian man who was a Muslim, and he told me how proud he was of the orthodox churches even though he practices another religion.
Bet Medhane Alem (note the UNESCO roof)Bet Medhane AlemBet Medhane AlemBet Medhane AlemBet Medhane AlemBet Medhane Alem 
You can take pictures inside the church too, but they don’t allow the use of flash because the light damages the paintings. Instead, set a high ISO number and hold the camera as still as possible while taking the photo; if you have a tripod or monopod, even better.
I found this cool site, the Zamani Project, which consists of a group of professionals that are documenting historic and cultural sites in many African countries, including Ethiopia. They have created, among other things, 3D models of the Lalibela churches, and there is a 3D animation video:

There is a lot to be said about this church, but maybe it is a bit too much for a post. There are some books available and also documentation on the Internet. 
I will get to the interior in my next post.

Zamani Project – Lalibela
Lalibela and Libanos (.pdf)
No Shelter. UNESCO Efforts to save Lalibela’s Culture (.pdf)
Lalibela – Phase I –1967  (.pdf)