After the 1991
fall of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam made Ethiopia more amenable
to visitors, hardy tourists started to make their way to the remote town of Lalibela,
perched in Ethiopia’s Lasta mountains at 2,600m. The town is home to 11 medieval
rock-cut churches so revered, Unesco included them on the original World
Heritage list in 1978 – a list of then only 12 sites, which now has grown to
981. Yet as more travellers have followed, some are
starting to worry that increased commercialisation is eroding the area’s unique
According to local
churches were the grand project of early 13th-century King
Lalibela, although archaeologists believe that some of the churches, including
the imposing Bet Gebriel-Rafael and the
nearby Bet Mercurios, were built five centuries earlier, under the rule of the Axumite
most spectacular of Lalibela’s churches is Bet Giyorgis (St George). The church
lies in a hole some 15m deep, putting its cruciform roof roughly at ground
level. Giyorgis has no bricks, no blocks, no evidence of joins. Instead, the
church is carved out of a single solid piece of pink rock. The 13th-century
labourers who built it dug down into an outcrop, carving a trench around a
single massive block, and then hewed the church from that monolith.
church may be a priceless experience, especially in mid-January during Timkat
(Epiphany), when thousands of Ethiopian white-clad worshippers, as well as
tourists, descend on the churches. But tourists have been grumbling since the
fee to see the churches tripled in 2013 from 350 birr to 950 birr, a ticket
that covers all 11 churches and is good for four days.
“It was a
shocker,” said Priscilla Champaneri, who was visiting from New Zealand. “I was
thinking it would be $20 (385 birr) maximum. We were backpacking and had
accounted carefully for the whole trip. We had paid so much to go there. Our
hotel manager said we are not the first to be shocked.”
world, many religious buildings accept tourists for a price. London’s St Paul’s Cathedral charges £16, the
equivalent of 505 birr; Italy’s Sistine Chapel and Vatican
Museums, 16 euros (415 birr). And Lalibela’s 950-birr, four-day tickets are
on par with the 160-Cambodian Riel (770 birr), three-day ticket to see Cambodia’s
Angkor temple complex or the 750-rupee
(230 birr), one-day ticket for India’s Taj Mahal.
But globally, there
are other religious institutions that don’t charge. Neither Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral or Istanbul’s
Blue Mosque ask
for an admission fee. More importantly, some question where the money to the
Lalibela churches goes, particularly as it does not seem to be used for
preservation. The enormous – and many say jarringly modern-looking – shelters completed
in 2008 that cover most of the churches, protecting them from rainwater
erosion, were paid for by the European Union and co-ordinated by Unesco.
revenue is primarily used to pay the 816 church officials – mostly priests,
deacons and chanters – who work around the 11 churches, said Deacon Alemu
Tseganew, who runs the Ethiopian Church’s ticket office in Lalibela. The
national hierarchy of the church takes a 20% cut, some of the money goes to
security and sanitation, and, Tseganew said, some of the money funds seminaries
and community work, such as constructing residences for the homeless. He estimated
that Lalibela’s rock-cut churches see an average of 115 visitors a day, equating
to about 40,000 people a year – and ticket revenue of 40 million Ethiopian birr.
of Lalibela has led some Ethiopia enthusiasts to seek out more obscure churches
in the far north of the country.
region – epicentre of the 1985 famine and the heartland of the Axumite
civilisation that prospered between the 1st and 10th Centuries – is
home to its own extraordinary rock-hewn churches. Instead of being dug down
into outcrops, these churches have been cut sideways, often into difficult-to-reach
cliff faces. The Axumite monastery of Debre Damo, for example, can only be
reached by climbing up a 15m leather rope.
churches of Lalibela are more accessible, the stark, mountainous landscape and
the isolated setting of the Tigray churches can be half the appeal for trekking
the revenue-raising potential of these northern churches is also being realised
– most cost 150 birr each to enter – and increasing tourism is changing the
surrounding area. At the Debre Tsion church,
I encountered a group of teenagers attempting to extort money from visitors by
blocking the paths off the mountain on which the church is carved. I later
learned that other travellers had run-ins with the same group. A priest,
standing in his own church of Medhane Alem Adi Kasho, reverently pointed out
pictures of Yaysus and Maryam (Jesus and Mary) – then rubbed
his fingers together in the international signal for wanting more money.
Lalibela, the influence of tourists, and tourist money, continues to grow, just
as it will in Tigray. Yet even throngs of visitors and a profusion of modern
hotels can’t erase the majesty of the stunning churches.