Lalibela is the second holiest site in Ethiopia, a significant Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrimage site, one that UNESCO has given significant funds to over the last decade for restoration, maintenance and site protection. How then were we able to go in through the back (not on purpose!) and view several of the famous rock hewn churches without paying?
Maybe UNESCO should rethink their site security plan. In the end, we found a ticket office and paid, and in an ironic twist of fate after we paid our tickets were checked at all of the subsequent churches. For our steep 300 birr (over 20USD) entry free we legally accessed the city designed as the second Jerusalem and its 11 monolithic large rock-hewn churches and a few pitch black tunnels.
If I sound disenchanted it’s true, I am. The churches themselves are architecturally interesting, having been cut out of rock, so they sit below ground in carved out holes. They certainly have an ancient world feel to them (or perhaps that’s just because they’re dark and dusty inside) which leads to an Indian Jones type aura. But, when holy priest after holy priest tells you to take his picture while holding centuries old ritual objects in front of centuries old frescoes and paintings, reminds you to turn on your flash and then balks that the “voluntary donation” you’ve given him for your picture isn’t enough, the whole experience gets ruined. Of course we want to be polite and respectful, but some of the priests were borderline aggressive when asking for tips that you just sort of shuddered at the thought of another picture. Trust me, between our conservation fee and donations for photos those priests are making sufficient income. Having lived in Italy where centuries old paintings aren’t shown the light of day let alone flashed a hundred times a day, I was so disappointed to see protectors of their own religious tradition throw UNESCO’s very clear guidelines out the window and encourage flash just to get a bigger tip.
The tip-happy priests didn’t completely ruin the Lalibela experience. In fact, we had a refreshingly nice time in Lalibela. From the moment we stepped out of our hotel we were greeted by children, who once they realized they weren’t getting any money from us, were happy to chatter away about their most recent lesson in school, what they wanted to be when they grew up and where we were from. As is typical in Africa, admitting we were from America was greeted with cries of OBAMA! And very proud displays of their primers which have not only a very patriotic red, white and blue design, but also a head shot of our famous president. Although kids in Africa can be annoying at first, when they give you their sob story for money, a pen or sweets, these kids were actually delightful and animated. One boy asked me to test him on his world capitals, and although he could name correctly every capital of Europe, he wasn’t able to name the capital of Canada, which was OK, he said because its cold and there is snow there. Sorry Canadians, it appears Ottawa doesn’t hold any exotic appeal in Ethiopia.