The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela

Rock-hewn church of Bet Giyorgis Lalibela

Getting to Lalibela from the capital Addis Abeba by bus was sort of a nightmare. On the other hand this meant that all the bus rides afterwards felt like peanuts … As the scheduled departure time was 5 am, we had a very short night.

On the way to the bus station we became already witnesses to a robbery: On the bumpy bad road, the cars had to drive very slowly. Suddenly two hooded guys jumped at the taxi in front of us, opened the back door and grabbed some bags. But we arrived safely at the bus station, which consisted only of a huge parking lot. It was freezing cold and pitch dark. Hundreds of people were already waiting and busses arrived and departed in no special order and without any destination panels on the buses or on the ground.

At 7 am an old American school bus showed up and passengers piled into the cabin. It was three persons on one bench and Isa had to sit half-bum for the next two days. That was how long it took to cover the 650 km. We had to stay overnight at a hotel in Dessie half-way, because the busses may not drive during the night.

Churches in solid rock

facade of Yemrehanna Kristos church

The reason why one would endure such a strenuous bus ride is to visit the 11 rock-hewn churches in Lalibela. The monolithic churches are not built from stone, but amazingly carved out and into the natural rocks. Doors, windows, lintels and all decoration are also chiselled artfully from this single block of stone. This amazing feat of architecture was realised by the Christian king Lalibela in the 12th century. Yes, the village is named after him. King Lalibela wanted to build a „New Jerusalem“ after the Muslim conquests prevented Christian pilgrimages to the holy Land. The churches became a UNESCO World Heritage in 1979.
Today all the churches are neon-lit so that the details and the interior painting are far better visible. But the atmosphere is still very archaic. All the churches are still tended by very photogenic priests and elders of the Ethiopian church, which has one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world.

Inside the courtyard of Beta Qedus Gabreel Rufael church
In the Bet Gabriel / Bet Rafael church complex in Lalibela

Some of the churches are close together, and those in the North-western group are most visited by tour groups. Bet Methane Alem is the largest building, with five bays, and directly connected with another church, Bet Maryam. There’s also Bet Mikael, Bet Danagel, and Bet Golgota close by. The latter has replicas of the tombs of Christ and Adam (in order to have a proper substitute for the Holy Land pilgrimage). We actually preferred the more secluded and quiet churches in the South-east: Beth Rafael, Bet Gabriel, Bet Amanuel, Bet Abba Libamos, and Bet Merkorios.

And finally the highlight: Bet Giyorgis. This is the most famous and most photographed church in Lalibela, standing on its own a bit apart. Bet Giyorgis is cut straight down into the reddish rock floor so that you can see the cross-shaped ground plan from above as you approach. To get into the church you have to walk down 15 m from ground level into the rock. Best visited in the evening. 

Why visit the Lalibela churches? Is it worth the effort?

Yes! Lalibela is WOW! We have never seen churches like that carved out of the stone. It is a very special spiritual place and you can feel the old Christian traditions.

Prices for visiting the Lalibela churches have gone up to about 40 € for all of them (valid for several days). You will need at least two days to visit all the churches and there are nice possibilities for daytrips from Lalibela. 

How to get to Lalibela

All transport leaves from Addis Abeba, the modern capital of Ethiopia. The bus takes 2 days, and although part of the road was being paved when we visited in 2011, it is presumably still nightmarish. There are also daily flights to Lalibela with Ethiopian Airways.

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