Week 5: Lalibela, Aksum, Tigray & Danakil


Lalibela is a former capital of Ethiopia and these churches were legendarily inspired by a trip that King Lalibela took to Jerusalem. Like many legends, there are some doubts to the truthfulness of this. There are many churches at Lalibela, and most of them are monolithic, carved out of one giant piece of rock. The workers started at the top and once they created windows, they removed all of the rock that had been inside through them until they made the doors. Archeologists say these churches date from the seventh to thirteenth centuries. King Lalibela is revered as a saint and there are all kinds of legends about him, including the story that he built one of these churches in less than a month with only the help of angels.


windows of Biete Medhane Alem, bishops of Lalibela, pillars of Biete Medhane Alem

The details of these churches are really cool. Check out these windows and pillars.


close ups of details in various Lalibela churches

I rerouted my trip to travel with Yun who came as a package deal along with Dan and Joey. All of us served in the Peace Corps at various points and it’s incredible how many things we had in common from that experience. I’m so grateful for the friendships that developed from traveling together.  The poster church of Lalibela is St. George’s Church because of its shape and fantastic preservation. Looking down on the church really shows the massive amount of carving required to create such a masterpiece.


top of St. George’s; Joey, Yun & Dan; view down on the church from the edge


Biete Gabriel-Rufael, Yun & my favorite photobomber of the trip, Biete Amanuel


Aksum was the first capital of Ethiopia from about 100 AD-960 AD. During this time, stelae were most likely built as gravestones. They were all carved from one huge piece of rock. (Technical note: an obelisk, although similar in shape, is carved from multiple pieces and then assembled.) The Great Stele weighed over 520 tons and probably broke during construction. The Rome Stele had been split into three pieces and stolen by the Italians, but was returned in 2007. At the top of each of the steles, there probably would have been a metal plate, although their purpose is unknown. The one they have found has a face surrounded by an illegible inscription.


Great Stele, Rome Stele, broken stele

Aksum also holds a lot of religious significance for Ethiopians. From the legends, Queen of Sheba supposedly had a son with King Solomon named Menelik I. (There is a rock palace in Aksum attributed to Queen of Sheba, but again, most historians are unclear if she actually existed.) Menelik I was raised by King Solomon and apparently when he left Jerusalem, he brought the Ark of the Covenant, which contains the original ten commandments with him back to Ethiopia for safekeeping. It has been housed in the Church of Mary of Zion ever since and only one guardian is ever allowed to see it. When Haile Selassie returned from exile, he built the largest church in all of Ethiopia in the 1950’s.


Chapel of the Tablet at the old Church of Mary of Zion, church book written in Ge’ez, much newer Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion

Abuna Yemata Guh

Less than a year ago, a friend sent me this BBC video about a hardcore baptism. When I decided to come to Ethiopia, I immediately put in on my list of places to visit. It is definitely an intense climb, although it can be done with ropes for those more fearful of heights). There are over 120 rock churches in this area of the Tigray province, some on flat ground and some with significant hikes up hilltops.


views of the climb, paintings from inside the church, beautiful views from the church entryway

Danakil Depression

This place is certainly one of the most unique places in the world. It is controlled by the Afar and after some violence a few years back, tourists are required to visit in giant convoys with varying amounts of military support along the way.  The first stop is the salt flats and the very shallow salty lake. Locals still harvest the salt (backbreaking work) and sell it in the bigger cities nearby. The roads in the area have recently been improved because potash is again being mined in the area.


convoy of 4x4s, camel caravan carrying harvested salt, strange structures in Dallol


sunset reflecting on the salt flats, salt patches, posing on the edge of the salt lake

Most people go to Danakil to see Erta Ale, a volcano that has been continuously erupting for years and at certain times looks like a giant lava lake. Unfortunately, it is mostly just smoking right now, so I opted instead to head only for Dallol, the site of some of the most surreal landscapes I have ever seen. The colors do not seem to belong to this world.


close-up view of the ground in Dallol

This entire area is incredibly hot, being over 100 meters below sea level and in the middle of the desert. It is also volcanically active, full of vents and fumaroles spewing toxic chemicals into the air. Some of these include ferrous chloride, iron hydroxide, and sulfuric compounds that create the stunning colors that blanket the area. In some places, those gases are still released in such high quantities that they choke off the oxygen, making it difficult to breathe. This place is definitely like nothing else I have ever seen.


the surreal landscapes of Dallol

Bonus Panoramas from Dallol


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