In the misty highlands of northern Ethiopia lies the historic town of Lalibela and its famous collection of rock-cut churches. The churches date back to the 12th century and provide an incredible insight into the lives and beliefs of medieval Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. In 1978 they were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and today, they are still places of active worship and pilgrimage. Lalibela is considered one of Ethiopia’s holiest destinations, and its churches are amongst the country’s top tourist attractions.
Over 800 Years of History
Ethiopia was one of the first countries to adopt Christianity, following the conversion of the Aksumite emperor Ezana in the 4th century. For several centuries, Aksum was the seat of religious and political power in Ethiopia. Some say that one of the Three Wise Men is buried there, and that the Ark of the Covenant is hidden within one of its many churches. However, when the Aksumite Empire began to decline, Lalibela grew in importance until it became the country’s capital in the late 12th century.
Around the same time, in 1187, Jerusalem was captured by the Muslim sultan Saladin, and religious conflict prevented Ethiopian Orthodox Christians from making pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Lalibela’s ruler, King Lalibela, commissioned the rock-cut churches to serve as a ‘New Jerusalem’ and an alternative place of pilgrimage for the country’s faithful. The layout and names of the churches were meant as a symbolic representation of Jerusalem, where Lalibela spent time as a child.
Architecture & Layout
Lalibela’s churches are unique in that they are hewn from a single piece of living rock. Instead of rising above ground level, they stand in sunken pits with their roofs on the same level as the surrounding landscape. Doors, windows, columns, and other decorative details were all painstakingly chiseled out by hand, in addition to an extensive system of drainage ditches and connecting trenches, some studded with hermit caves and shrines. In total, UNESCO recognizes 11 churches assembled into two distinct groups on either side of the River Jordan.
They are as follows:
The Northern Group
- Biete Medhani Alem (House of the Savior of the World)
- Biete Mariam (House of Mary)
- Biete Maskal (House of the Cross)
- Biete Denagel (House of the Virgins)
- Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael)
The Southern Group
- Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel)
- Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercurius)
- Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos)
- Biete Gabriel Raphael (House of Gabriel Raphael)
- Biete Lehem (House of Holy Bread)
The 11th church is set apart from the others, but still connected via a series of trenches. It is known as Biete Ghiorgis, or the House of St. George.
Top Things to See
All 11 of the Lalibela churches are worth exploring, and their proximity to one another makes it easy to do so. However, there are a few that stand out for one reason or another.
Biete Medhani Alem
With no fewer than five aisles, Biete Medhani Alem is the largest monolithic church in the world. The church is also exceptional for the Lalibela Cross, a processional cross thought to have been carved by King Lalibela himself during the 12th century. It is one of Ethiopia’s most precious religious artifacts, and on Sundays, it is used to bless worshippers in need of healing.
Arguably the finest and best-preserved of the Lalibela churches, Biete Ghiorgis is distinctive for its shape, which resembles a perfectly proportioned Greek cross. Inside, you can admire 800-year-old olivewood boxes whose carving is attributed to King Lalibela; and a 16th-century painting of St. George slaying the dragon.
Despite its relatively small size, Biete Mariam is the most sacred church for pilgrims (due to its dedication to the Virgin Mary) and also probably the oldest. Its beautiful interior decor includes colorful early frescoes depicting scenes from the Bible, and some intricately carved columns and arches. It is also the only church to include a set of porches.
Biete Golgotha Mikael
Unfortunately, this church is off-limits to women. However, male visitors should step inside to admire life-size bas-relief sculptures of the 12 apostles. Biete Golgotha Mikael is also home to the Selassie Chapel, which is said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela. It is one of the most sacred areas of the entire complex, and as such, closed to the public.
The churches are used for daily worship and prayer, and host several religious festivals throughout the year. Of these, the most impressive is Genna, the Ethiopian Orthodox version of Christmas. Held annually on January 7, the celebration sees tens of thousands of pilgrims flock to Lalibela to take part in candlelit vigils and to watch the priests perform the woreb, a musical representation of the birth of Christ.
How to Visit the Churches
You can visit Lalibela independently or as part of an organized tour. There are several benefits to joining a tour. Firstly, your expert guide will help you navigate the complex’s churches, caves, and trenches, and will also provide a better understanding of its history and legends. Secondly, tours often include transfers, which saves you the trouble of having to arrange your own transportation. Options differ, from full-day tours of the churches and local villages to extended stays with accommodation included. This five-day itinerary takes you to some of the north’s other top destinations, including Lake Tana, the Blue Nile Falls, Gondar, and Aksum.
If you decide to explore on your own, there are several ways to get to Lalibela. You can travel by bus – but be aware that journeys are typically long and uncomfortable (the trip from the capital, Addis Ababa, takes two full days). The easiest option is to fly to Lalibela Airport (LLI) and take a taxi from there to the churches. Ethiopian Airlines offers direct flights to Lalibela from Addis, Gondar, Mekelle, and Aksum; and connecting flights from across the African continent.
Admission costs $50 per adult and $25 per child aged 9 to 13. The ticket affords access to the entire complex (except for chapels or sanctuaries closed to the public). Remember that Lalibela is considered sacred to many Ethiopians, so you should remove your shoes and hat when asked. The churches are open every day from 8 a.m. to midday, and again from 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Unfortunately, the site is not wheelchair-accessible.
If you want to stay overnight in Lalibela town, there are several accommodation options. Maribela Hotel and Harbe Hotel are two of the best-ranked hotels on TripAdvisor. The rock-cut churches are impressive at any time of year, although the October to March dry season is traditionally considered the most pleasant time to visit.