Things to see & do at Lalibela, Ethiopia

Lalibela is Africa’s Petra. Named after King Gebre Mesquel Lalibela, who was revered as a saint, centuries ago Lalibela was the Ethiopian capital and today this compact, rural town is an immensely significant pilgrimage location, among the most important sites in Christianity. The 11 monolithic churches here, expertly carved out of the pink volcanic rock between the 7th and 13th centuries to symbolise spirituality and humility, are uniquely built top-down, sunken underground.

Ethiopia was one of the first Christian nations in the world. Almost every citizen of Lalibela, especially those of older generations, is an Orthodox Christian, and dressed in white robes they flock to the churches every morning to pray, petition and chant. It’s not unknown for services held during religious festivals to become feats of endurance, the Christmas ones known to exceed 12 hours.

It is said of the churches’ origins that they were an attempt to build a new Jerusalem. However, you don’t need to be religious-minded to appreciate what an incredible architectural and engineering achievement they were for the masons of medieval Ethiopia. Indeed, the churches today are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hewn out of the rock, some are in excess of 10 metres tall, or deep, depending on how you look at them, and they are surrounded by a labyrinth of tunnels and passageways. Getting lost can be enjoyable, but only with a tour guide can you gain a thorough appreciation of the site’s intricacies.

Lalibela highlights

Lalibela’s 11 churches are arranged in four groups, clustered for the most part within walking distance of each other on both sides of a stream known as the River Jordan. Some of the more remote churches can be reached with mules and a little hiking, and provide stunning panoramas over the surrounding landscape. The Northern group are considered the most impressive in terms of scale and detail.

Biete Medhane Alem

The House of the Saviour of the World, supported by dozens of columns, holds the Lalibela Cross. This is one of the most precious religious artefacts in Ethiopia, a processional cross said to have the capacity of healing when brushed against the skin.

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Biete Maryam

The oldest of the Lalibela churches is said to be a replica of the Tombs of Adam and Christ. The interior is decorated with superb frescoes across its pillars, arches and ceilings.

Biete Golgotha Mikael

Distinctive for the seven reliefs of saints around its outer walls, Biete Golgotha Mikael is said to be the final resting place of King Lalibela.

Church of Saint George

The single most impressive church here is also the best preserved. This 15m tower was built in the shape of a cruciform cross. Completely distinct to the other churches, the Church of Saint George sits in a deep pit and truly showcases the mastery of the builders.

Inside the churches it can be very dark, with little to no natural light illuminating the various decorations. Dozens of priests wander around wearing sunglasses due to incessant flash photography. It’s thought this is damaging the paintings, but the priests are still always happy to pose. As you would expect from such ancient buildings, the churches have suffered from erosion over the centuries, and the ongoing conservation efforts are controversial as many of the most interesting architectural features have been screened off for some years with little sign of progress. Yet that doesn’t take anything away from the sense of awe Lalibela inspires in visitors.

Beyond the main site there are many other churches and monasteries close to Lalibela including Ashetan Maryam which perches on a ridge, Yemrehanna Kristos, and Bilbila Giyorgis - the sacred honey here which you can taste is said to have curative properties. The town itself is a generally relaxed place, with lots of the traditional two-storey tukul houses and cafes where you can sip on tej, the local honey wine.
“Seeing the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela was the impetus for booking the journey and they certainly did not disappoint... what engineering marvels and still the centres of an active faith. Try to time your itinerary to be in Lalibela on a Sunday morning to see the churches in 'action’,” – Christine Didsbury in a review of her Ethiopia holiday

“The scenery is extraordinary, and the rock-cut churches are unforgettable. Totally totally awe-inspiring. Loved the old soul faces. The church paintings were fascinating although curatorial and conservation practices very questionable. But wonderful to see these ancient churches which are still so central to everyday contemporary life in Ethiopia.” – Liz Delmont in a review of her Ethiopia holiday
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Chuck Moravec] [Intro: Damien Halleux Radermecker] [Biete Medhane Alem: Bernard Gagnon] [Biete Maryam: Katie Hunt] [Church of Saint George: A. Davey]