Other than the eleven Unesco churches in Lalibela, the surrounding countryside is also worth a visit. We ventured out of the main part of town to visit the semi-cave church of Nakutoleab built in the 13th century and the Yemrehanna Kristos church. As the name would suggest, Nakutoleab church is named after King Na’akuto La’ab who was the successor and nephew to King Lalibela. The church is built into a cave with water dripping down from the ceiling and collected as holy water. It is believed that the church was built on the site of an older shrine and the inner red-brick building was later added by Empress Zewditu in the 20th century.
About 2 hours outside of Lalibela is one of the best preserved late Aksumite structures in Ethiopia called Yemrehanna Kristos. This church is set inside a natural cave surrounded by juniper trees and is named after a 12th century Zagwe king and saint. It predates the Lalibela rock-cut churches by 80 years and is built inside the cave rather than excavated. The exterior of the church has alternating wood and stone layers with cruciform windows. We were told that many pilgrims come here to die and their mummified remains lie behind the church inside the cave.
If you look at the mountain overlooking Lalibela, you will undoubtedly spot a weird futuristic looking structure. This is actually a restaurant called Ben Abeba designed by a few young Ethiopian architects. We went there for a drink and it is the perfect place to enjoy sunset in Lalibela.
Lalibela is definitely a bucket-list worthy place. In fact, it has been referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. You have to be here to feel the energy and the serenity, to walk through the tunnels and touch the walls, and to see the devoted pilgrims who have come to visit at least once in their lifetimes and others who come for prayers everyday. Who would have thought that such a holy place existed in the middle of Africa. And who would have thought that the traditional religious rituals have hardly changed over the past 900 years and that these rock hewn churches are still frequented by pilgrims and not forgotten.
From Ethiopia, we continue our trip to Madagascar. Stay tuned!
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