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.
The semi-cave Nakutoleab Church
These slabs were hit with the small round stone sitting on the bottom rung to call for prayer
Holy water dripping from the roof of the cave is collected in these pools.
The priest will splash holy water on your head and face. Locals also bring small containers with them to collect some holy water to take home.
Priest showing us the church’s ancient artefacts including the holy cross from a few hundred years ago.
Holy relics of Nakutoleab Church
Priest of Nakutoleab showing us the Book of Mary made of goat skin.
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.
Local village near the Yemrehanna Kristos Church
The hike up to Yemrehanna Kristos
Pilgrims bathing with the holy water
Headscarves are not required for tourists but is nice to wear one out of respect for the local culture and traditions. Plus it makes it a bit easier for me to blend in and take pictures.
We were being shown the holy relic of the Holy Trinity
Mummified remains behind the church. You can see the legs of pilgrims here. The guide says there is at least 5,000 bodies put to rest here.
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.
Beam of light shining over 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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