Finding an Ethiopian Wonder
My guide to exploring the incredible Rock Churches of Lalibela.
It’s barely dawn; the sky is still dark and birds are just starting to chirp and sing. In the darkness, I scramble along the slippery walkway carved out of rock, through a heavy wooden door made from an 800-year-old olive tree and find myself inside an ancient rock-hewn church.
Gentle swaying chants and drumbeats echo through the walls that sport intricate carvings and frescos depicting scenes from the bible. Priests covered in white cloth chant and pray in Ge’ez (an ancient language that predates the modern-day Amharic language in Ethiopia), while women also dressed in white fall to their knees and offer their prayers with their foreheads touching the rock floor. The atmosphere here is both spiritual and hypnotising.
Lalibela: Ethiopia’s Holy Land
If there’s only one place you can visit in Ethiopia, make it Lalibela. Perched at an altitude of 2,630m, the hilly town has a striking setting amidst craggy peaks and rugged landscapes. Although the mountain town itself isn’t anything to write home about, the outstanding cluster of 13 medieval rock-hewn churches here feature some of the most impressive architectures in the world.
Carved right out of balsatic scoria volcanic rocks, these 900-year-old churches were meticulously sculpted below ground level and immaculately preserved until they were discovered by a Portuguese priest in 1520. Today, the World Heritage Site is highly protected by UNESCO. What set the churches here apart from other monuments like Petra is that they are still active and fully-functioning. Pilgrims all over the country visit and locals come to pray on a daily basis.
If there’s only one place you can visit in Ethiopia, make it Lalibela.
The Rock Churches Lalibela – the origins
The churches got their name from King Lalibela, who had ordered their construction. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe that the churches were built during his reign, circa 1181-1221, but scientists don’t believe that it was possible to build churches – spanning a wide area and featuring different architectural styles – in such a short time frame. Even until today, experts cannot confirm the exact duration that took to build these spectacular rock churches.
In total, there are 13 rock churches in Lalibela — some are monolithic, a few are semi-monolithic (joined to the rock in some parts) and others are carved into the rock. They are divided into three groups: the north-western churches, southeastern churches and Saint George which stands apart from the other clusters.
This is a guide to help you navigate your way if you’re visiting alone (without a guide) and to help you learn more about the churches before your visit. I visited all the churches with a local guide, as part of my trip around northern Ethiopia with Aone Ethiopia Tours.
Bete Giyorgis (Church of Saint George)
Lauded as the most beautiful church in Lalibela, Saint George Church has often been featured in pictures and books. I recommend making this your first stop (to avoid the crowd) or last stop (if you like to save the best for the last). You’ll most probably recognise it instantly from its perfect cross shape that can be seen from an elevated ground. For the best pictures, head up the small slope right at the gate.
Thanks to its two-meter thick rock ceiling, this particular church has miraculously withstood centuries of environmental wear and tear. It is the only church that is not covered by a tarp (from UNESCO). This impressive monolithic church (lone-standing) was the last church to be built in the area.
Despite an impressive architecture, the church’s interior is quite humble, sporting an altar, a few paintings and a prayer hall. Its interior measures 12m by 12m, with a height of 13m. It’s still got a great atmosphere and worth visiting especially at dawn.
Attached to the ticket office, this group of churches is easily the most impressive and artistically stunning. I recommend heading here after visiting St George.
Bet Medhane Alem (Church of Savior of the World)
The largest church on the site is often the first church that most people visit as it’s the closest to the entrance and ticket office. It is surrounded by 37 colonnades, a few of which have been crumbled (you can see their remains by the side of the church) but fully restored in 1954 by the Ministry of Civil Engineering. The church itself has a layout that resembles that of the ancient Aksum Cathedral (further north in Ethiopia where Christianity was first introduced) which was destroyed in the 16th century.
The entire church – including the doors, windows, vaults and pillars – is cut within one single rock so as to resemble a building. It was also given a coat of red paint in the early 19th century, some of which can be seen in the northern facade.
Bet Maryam (Church of Saint Mary)
Next to the Bete Medhane Alem is the St Mary Church (you have to cross a short tunnel to get there). Of all the churches in Lalibela, this one has probably the most beautiful frescoes and carvings on its ceiling. Said to be the first church that was built, it’s been immaculately preserved, especially on the inside. The church is the most popular among pilgrims as it’s dedicated to Virgin Mary, who’s particularly worshipped by Ethiopians.
Bet Meskel (Church of the Holy Cross)
This tiny chapel carved into the northern wall surrounding Bet Maryam is quite a nondescript church that features a small prayer hall and a separate chanting room. Its interior also has four pillars, which represent the four evangelists.
Bet Danagel (Church of the Virgins)
Another small chapel found in Bet Maryam’s courtyard (carved into the southern wall), this small church was constructed in memory of the maiden nuns martyred in the orders of 4th century Roman emperor Julian.
Bet Golgotha (Church of Golgotha)
This is one of the holiest Lalibela sites. This is believed to be the burial site of King Lalibela (who was also a saint). While his tomb is not accessible to visitors or pilgrims today, it’s said to be placed in a crypt under the floor of Golgotha Church, covered with a large stone slab so heavy that nobody can move it. There’s a hole in its centre, which allows pilgrims to touch the saint’s grave and extract dust to cure diseases. Next to Lalibela’s grave stands a replica of the Tomb of Christ.
Sadly, women are not allowed to enter this church.
Debre Sina Mikael (Church of Mount Sinai – Saint Michael)
This church has a similar structure to that of its twin church of Bet Golgotha. It has the only cruciform pillars in the Lalibela churches. The church is erected on a base type Axumite three tiers and the whole building is about 11.5 meters high. In order to access the church, you’ll have to walk along the trench and climb up the narrow steps.
This second group of church is just a hop away from the first group and differ quite a lot from the north-western churches in terms of architecture and style. You’ll find that the first group is more impressive in scale, but this group features more intricate exteriors and variation in structure (with trenches and tunnels connecting them).
Bet Gabriel-Rufael (Church of Gabriel and Rufael)
Located at the entrance of the group of south-eastern churches, this impressive twin church is the only one that’s accessible from its top, via a rock bridge known as the “Way to Heaven”. Its architecture and layout are very different to the other churches, featuring an irregular floor plan rather than a cross-shaped layout. This has led scholars to think that this may have been a fortified palace rather than a church for the Aksumite royalty from as early as the 7th century.
Bet Merkorios (Church of Merkorios)
Another church thought to have started as something different, Bet Merkorios is believed to have been used as a prisoner or justice court due to the discovery of ankle shackles here. It’s connected to Bet Gabriel-Rufael by a series of intriguing tunnels and trenches — and wandering along these tunnels is an experience on its own. As a large part of the church has collapsed, it’s been restored and supported by several ugly but necessary brick walls.
Bet Amanuel (Church of Emanuel)
Possibly my second favorite church (after Bet Giyorgis), this one has a particularly striking exterior that resembles the style of Aksumite buildings. It’s said to be the royal family chapel. The perfectly monolithic church sports finely carved strips on its exterior, as well as blind windows that represent the Noah’s Ark. Again its interior is rather blend, except for the Aksumite frieze atop the arches.
Bet Abba Libanos (Church of Libanos)
As the only grotto (cave) church in Lalibela, this is quite a unique church in that it’s hypogeous. That means only its roof and floor are attached to the rock. Surrounding it is a large cave that is used for chanting and drumming during mass and other religious ceremonies. The church looks rather big from the outside but inside it’s actually really narrow.
How to Visit Lalibela Churches
The entrance fee is a shocking 1000 birr (US$50) per adult and 500 birr (US$25) per child. Before you brush it off because of the high prices, keep in mind that it’s valid for 5 days and includes all the 13 churches (11 for women) as well as the Lalibela Church Museum. And let’s not forget how magnificent and extraordinary these churches are.
You can easily hire an official guide at the ticket office. Prices for official guides are higher than unofficial ones but they have more knowledge and are much more reliable. In all honesty, you don’t need a local guide if you have a guidebook with you.
When to Visit Lalibela Churches
As with most parts of Ethiopia, Lalibela can be visited anytime of the year; but the best time to come is during Genna (Christmas which falls on 7th January), followed by Timkat (Epiphany on 19th January which was when I visited) and Meskel (Holy Cross Day on 27th September).
During these religious festivals, you’ll be able to see the magnitude of the site’s importance as a pilgrimage spot for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. However, hotel rates will increase dramatically and the compact town can feel unusually touristy during this period.
If you want to see the churches at their liveliest (and most sacred), it’s worthwhile to rise early and come at daybreak (around 6am). You’ll be able to witness locals and pilgrims do their prayers and chants. I found the churches to be packed with devout pilgrims who made the place come alive. It definitely adds to your experience and gives a different perspective. You can also time your visit on a Sunday as that’s the most popular day for locals to visit the churches.
How to Travel to Lalibela
Despite being the most visited site in Ethiopia, Lalibela is surprisingly inaccessible by road today. It’s still not connected to any other town by an asphalt road. Because of its elevated location, the drive up to Lalibela is steep and treacherous — prepare to take at least 7 hours (without stopping) to cover the 270km between the nearest town Dessie and Lalibela.
To save yourself a horrible drive or even longer bus journey, you can fly to Lalibela from Addis Ababa. Or other cities like Gondar on Ethiopian Airlines. The airport lies about 25km from town centre on a paved road.
Where to Stay in Lalibela
There’s a limited range of accommodation choices in Lalibela, but rooms are quite cheap here. Don’t expect much in terms of standards. Note that their prices can increase dramatically during religious festivals like Timkat and Genna.
Budget Option: Seven Olives Hotel
We stayed at this rustic hotel that’s centrally located and just a five-minute walk from the Lalibela Churches. Being the oldest hotel in town, it’s quite dated and in need for restoration works, but its leafy gardens and beautiful views of the city make it quite worthwhile for those on a tight budget.
Luxury Option: Mountain View Hotel
This higher end hotel has a rock-and-glass exterior and an elevated location which opens up to panoramic views of the mountains surrounding Lalibela. The restaurant here is named the best in town by several guidebooks.