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The Bees Recognize His Sovereignty

And so should you if you know what’s good for you.

lalibela cave
Cave tunnel of the sacred dead end

Lalibela the Ball, Lalibela Lugosi, Lalibela Pock. Plenty of bad puns, but none of them make any sense. But what does make sense is the literal translation of “Lalibela,” which is “The bees recognize his sovereignty,” and was the name bestowed upon King Gebre Meskel, ruler of northern and western Ethiopia in the early 13th Century. And, for my money, it’s a much cooler name than Dances with Wolves or Makes Children Uncomfortable (the discount Chippewa clown at my fifth birthday party).

Meskel was given the name after a swarm of bees surrounded him at birth, an auspicious sign taken to mean that he would one day be emperor. Word around the campfire is that Lalibela visited Jerusalem when young, and after it was sacked by Muslims in 1187 made plans to build a new Jerusalem, which was then named after him and his bees.

bet maryam in lalibela
Lalibela Christians go through a lot of Clorox (Beta Ghenetta Mariam church).

There, 11 churches were hewn out of the rock. Having hewn pinewood derby cars out of a block of wood, I felt I could relate to the task and accurately say that these churches are “impressive.”

This was definitely a location that did not let me down. I had seen no previous photos and expected to see something like Cappadocia in Turkey or Vardzia in the Republic of Georgia: Flintstone-like caves with doorways and windows carved in the side of the mountain (not to knock those; I love them both). But instead, you’ve got elaborate stone temples carved out of the mountain into freestanding structures.

lalibela church
A look down on Bet Medhane Alem church

As you approach the first and largest church (Bet Medhane Alem, the House of the Savior of the World), you can see how one might’ve missed it a century ago. The Parthenon-lie roof (well, first imagine that the Parthenon has a roof) is just the side of the mountain the building was carved from, but surrounding that is a quadrilateral, cavernous crevasse courtyard maybe 30 feet across and more than 35 feet down. A treacherous, moat-like void separates you from the building, a narrow cut in the rock ramps a walkway down to the entrance.

(The reason I say that you could’ve only missed seeing it in the past though is because UNESCO has built an enormous protective shelter over the top that looks like something you’d see at Wolf Trap.)

From Bet Medhane Alem you can reach neighboring Beta Ghenetta Mariam (House of Mary) through a narrow tunnel about 20 feet long. This was where I showed up this morning at 6am for a church service. Unfortunately, nobody told me to wear a white shawl or cloak, so I think they knew I was a foreigner.

shawl woman in lalibela
Pretty shawl for a pretty lady

Surrounding the church and on the surrounding mountainside, churchgoers prayed, prostrated, and perused their Bibles proudly. Others stood with their heads against the stone walls of the church like punished schoolchildren.

What’s even more impressive than the outside is the inside. The lower walls are softly smooth from hundreds of years of parishioners’ hands, and the artwork on the stone combined with the tapestries hide any sense of weird troglodyte monkishness. Oh I just love what they’ve done with the place!

bete mariam
Innards of St. Mary's church. All that stone is carved out of the mountainside.

After about 90 minutes of Mary, I went back to my hotel for breakfast and then meandered to the second of Lalibela’s three church clusters.

Labyrinthine slot canyons redirect you in befuddling amusement only sometimes in the direction of another church (other times in the direction of a stagnant pool of water). I was sitting upon a stone windowsill when a guard told me to beat it. I think because it was almost noon, and the churches closed for two hours.

lalibela
An alleyway to more church thingies.

I failed to find my way out of the complex in time though and was semi-stranded in a small, sunken church attached to a dark tunnel about 50 yards long (but it felt like half a mile the first time I dimly dove in with my head lamp) that led to a boarded-up exit with a guard sleeping on the other side.

Deciding to embrace the lunchtime solitude, I found a nook with a little bit of light and kicked back for 90 minutes until somebody new passed through who may have taken me for creepy. It doesn’t take people long unfortunately.

It was on one of my tunnel tours that I came out and upon the inside of the church and priest in the lead photo above.

A beautiful day.

lalibela church crevasse
Chillin' by the churches
lalibela church pillars
You know I can still see you, right?

 

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