From Gonder, I flew to Lalibela, the town I was most excited about visiting. Lalibela is a popular destination in Ethiopia because of its 11 magnificent rock-hewn churches from the 12th century. The churches’ monolithic structures are awe-inspiring. Lalbiela is also the second most important Christian site of pilgrimage in Ethiopia after Aksum, a town in the far north that is believed in the Ethiopian Orthodox faith to hold the Ark of the Covenant. I was unfortunately unable to make it up to Aksum but I hope to visit one day. And besides, Lalibela alone was captivating enough.
Lalibela is often referred to as Africa’s Jerusalem, because the layout of the churches and many of its intricacies are modeled after the original Israel. It is said that Lalibela was built as a New Jerusalem following the capture of Jerusalem by Muslims in 1187. There is a river running through Lalibela that separates some churches from the others, and it is referred to as the River Jordan. One section is meant to represent the Tomb of Adam. And the names of the churches are reminiscent of Hebrew: for example, Bete Amanuel means House of Emmanuel, coming from the Hebrew word beth, meaning house (UNESCO).
The sheer size of the churches took my breath away. I wondered aloud how it was possible that these churches were carved into the ground. My guide informed me that although King Lalibela had hundreds of workers, various sections were completed by angels overnight. I was also impressed by the planning required to design the network of tunnels connecting the churches.
Lalibela’s churches are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That’s wonderful, but when this honour was bestowed upon the little town, hundreds of families living in the vicinity of the churches were displaced due to conservation regulations put in place by UNESCO. Disappointed, I asked my guide what was done with the funds from the church’s hefty $50US admission fee. Based on his response, it is doubtful that much of the proceeds benefit the average residents of Lalibela, a town with considerable poverty.
On my second day of Lalibela, I went on an early morning hike in Lalibela’s mountainside. It was intended to be a hike to a monastery called Asheten Maryam, but I decided to just go for the views of Lalibela. I was monaster-ied out after visiting Bahir Dar and had read reviews that this one wasn’t anything unique. The hike was exhausting but I took some beautiful photos and got to walk by the teff fields and villages of Lalibela’s countryside.
I spent two nights in Lalibela to soak up the small town vibe. Then it was back to Addis for two more days. At the top of my list was the Ethnological Museum at the main campus of Addis Ababa University. As a sociocultural anthropology student, this museum was a highlight for me. It included pottery, clothing, technologies, children’s games, and various other artefacts from the various ethnic groups making up Ethiopia’s cultural landscape. The second floor boasts a fascinating exhibit on musical instruments and an art gallery. Plus, the building itself used to be a palace of Emperor Haile Selassie and Empress Menen, with some of their living quarters preserved. Their bed and bathrooms were surprisingly mundane. I also wondered why the Emperor’s toilet was so far away from his bidet.
I also went to Ethiopia’s National Museum. Although this one also has interesting cultural artefacts, the highlight is its natural history section, which contains the remains of the famous australopithecine afarensis, Lucy. I’m a huge fan of Lucy’s so we took a selfie together. Outside the museum, I also checked out a cannon used by the Ethiopian army to defeat the Italians during the Battle of Adwa in 1896.
I also visited the famous Tomoca coffee shop to have a macchiato, buy some beans to take home, and people-watch.
On my last evening, I took a minibus up Entoto Hill, referred to by some as Addis’ rooftop. I needed to take two minibuses and one Toyota pickup truck to get up there, so that was an adventure. At the top is the charming Entoto Maryam church. There wasn’t enough time to go inside, so I spent some time checking out the exterior while a very dedicated group of people prayed outside. From Entoto Hill I also took this photo overlooking the city at sunset.
I visited my favourite part of Addis Ababa at its peak time. Saturday morning at Mercato Centrale. This is the largest market in East Africa and one of the most hectic, crowded, overwhelming places I’ve ever visited. I loved it! I don’t have any pictures because most of the time I didn’t feel comfortable taking out my camera. And the one time I did, a lady yelled at me to stop, and so I requested her request. I figured out how to get there by minibus, which again was a bit of an adventure. I enjoyed wading through the crowds, visiting the market’s various sections: vegetables, meats, metals, plastics…and my favourite: spices. The spice market was so beautifully colourful and an intense experience for the senses. I made sure to buy some to take home, including Ethiopia’s unique berbere, as well as some incense. Before heading to the airport, I finished my visit in Ethiopia in the best way I can think of – by sitting in a little café in Mercato, having broken English-Amharic conversations with some folks over a coffee.