Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela
Comprising eleven churches and two chapels, Ethiopia's labyrinthine ‘New Jerusalem’, excavated by King Lalibela in the 12th century and still in active use today, has been dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World”. Hand-carved into the rock flake by painstaking flake, a process that would have required around 40,000 man-years to complete, Lalibela represents the apex of an Ethiopian church-excavating tradition that dates to the arrival of Christianity circa 350 AD.
- Many of Lalibela’s churches are subterranean monoliths, created in two stages. First, a quadrangle of trenches up to 15 metres deep would be hand-cut into a horizontal rock surface. Only then could the artisans commence work on the actual church, which was excavated into a massive freestanding central block enclosed by the artificial trenches.
- The church of Bete Medhane Alem, set in one such subterranean courtyard, is the world's largest rock-hewn excavation, supported by 36 internal and 36 external pillars.
- The most iconic church at Lalibela, Bete Giyorgis is a free-standing monolith carved in the shape of a cross and dedicated to its namesake Saint George. Legend has it that Saint George was so delighted when he saw his church that he rode his horse right over the entrance tunnel, leaving behind hoof prints that are still visible today.
- The impact of Lalibela is not limited to its architecture. This is also one of the very few UNESCO World Heritage Sites of comparable vintage that functions as a living shrine, one whose ancient stone churches have remained in active use since their excavation almost nine centuries ago.
- The countryside around Lalibela is studded with many other ancient churches. These include Yemrehanna Kristos, one of the finest surviving examples of Aksumite architecture, constructed in the 11th century with alternating layers of wood and gypsum-faced granite.
Lalibela lies 170km from Weldiya, 300km from Bahir Dar, 360km from Gondar, and 390km from Aksum by road. All routes are mostly surfaced but involve some travel on gravel. The shortest road distance between Addis Ababa and Lalibela is 680km via Dessie and Weldiya. Lalibela airport, 25km from the town centre along a surfaced road, is serviced by daily Ethiopian Airlines flights from Addis Ababa, Gondar, Bahir Dar and Aksum (www.ethiopianairlines.com). All flights are met by private operators offering transfers into town.
The complex of 11 churches in Lalibela town can only be explored on foot. A guide is strongly recommended and can be obtained at the ticket office outside the Northern church cluster. Transport and logistics for visiting other churches further afield can be handled by most hotels and guides, local tour operators or the Community Tourism Guiding Enterprise.
The town of Lalibela has a large selection of hotels catering to all tastes and budgets. Out of town options include a network of 11 community-managed lodges linked by hiking trails and a similar hut in the Mount Abuna Yoseph Community Conservation Area.
Lalibela is a good a place to purchase Ethiopian handicrafts. Craft stalls are clustered on the main square and along the main road south of the churches.
Annual Events and Festivals
Ethiopia’s Christian holidays are all celebrated vigorously, particularly Meskel and Timkat, which attract pilgrims from all around the country to Lalibela, and are also very popular with tourists. Key holidays are Ethiopian New Year (11 September), Meskel (Finding of the True Cross; 27 September), Gena (Ethiopian Christmas; 7 January) and Timkat (Epiphany; 19 January). Holidays fall one day later in leap years.
A Guide to Gondar and Lake Tana by Milena Batistoni (2008), www.aradabooks.com - the most detailed site guide to Lalibela.
Bradt Guide to Ethiopia by Philip Briggs (7th edition 2015), www.bradtguides.com - detailed background information and up-to-date hotel, restaurant and other listings.
Lalibela World Cultural Centre - tel +251 (0) 912942658.
Abune Yoseph Community Conservation Area - www.abuneyosephtourism.org.
Amhara Culture, Tourism and Parks Development Bureau - www.amharatours.org.et.
- Comprising five churches and two chapels, Lalibela’s Northern church cluster is carved into a complex of subterranean courtyards whose cohesion suggests it was conceived as one unit: Bete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), Bete Maryam (House of Mary), Bete Meskel (House of the Cross), Bete Danagel (House of Virgins), Bete Golgotha-Mikael (House of Golgotha-Mikael);
- The Southern church cluster is more architecturally varied and some of its five churches might have been converted from secular excavations that predate the reign of King Lalibela: Bete Emanuel (House of Emmanuel), Bete Mercurios (House of Saint Mercurios), Bete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos), Bete Gebriel Raphael (House of St Gabriel Raphael), and Bete Lehem (House of Bread).
- The last church to be carved at Lalibela, Bete Giyorgis is an iconic cruciform excavated for Saint George after he complained that none of the older churches were dedicated to him.
- The Lalibela Cultural Centre Museum has displays outlining the development of the church complex, as well as a precious 500-year-old Ge’ez Bible.
- Some 5km from Lalibela along a steep motorable track, Asheton Maryam is a roughly carved cave monastery set at 3,200m on the western slopes of Mount Abune Yoseph. Accessible from the airport road, the Monastery of Nakuta La’ab, a cave church built around holy springs, is named after the nephew of King Lalibela who founded it.
- The trio of atmospheric rock-hewn churches close to Bilbilla, 30km north of Lalibela, are said locally to have been excavated during the 6th century rule of King Kaleb.
- Yemrehanna Kristos is a monastic cave that hosts one of the finest existing examples of Aksumite architecture, an 11th century church constructed with alternating layers of wood and white gypsum.
- Some 5km from Lalibela along a steep motorable track, Asheton Maryam is a roughly carved cave monastery set at 3,200m on the western slopes of Mount Abune Yoseph.
- Carved into a pinkish outcrop, Genata Maryam, excavated during the 13th century reign of Yikuno Amlak and decorated with 700-year-old paintings, is a popular trailhead with hikers.
- Mekane Medhane Alem, set in a large cave on a spur of Mount Abune Yoseph, is a layered Aksumite wood-and-stone church situated three hours from Genata Maryam by foot or mule.
- The upper slopes of the 4,284m Mount Abuna Yoseph are protected in a new community conservation area that supports around 25 Ethiopian wolves and plenty of gelada baboons.
- Hikers can spend up to two weeks hiking in the mountain around Lalibela using trails and overnight huts established in collaboration with several local communities through Tesfa Treks.