The above phrase is written in Amharic, and says “Ethiopian history: Lalibela.”
Christianity was established as the state religion in Ethiopia in 330 AD. However, it is highly likely that it arrived in Ethiopia before that. Lalibela is often referred to as the “New Jerusalem” of Africa. Legend says that an angel took the Emperor of Lalibela to Jerusalem to see the churches there. Struck with wonder, upon returning to Lalibela, the Emperor built his own New Jerusalem so that pilgrims wouldn’t have to make the dangerous and long journey to the true Jerusalem. A pious man and lifelong devotee of the church, he was made a saint by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church after his death.
In 1978, the churches of Lalibela were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The churches in the town are still an active place of pilgrimage and worship for the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox faith. To preserve these historic Lalibela churches, UNESCO has built protective covering for four of the churches so that they can be sheltered from the weather. If you’d like to see a brief video of Lalibela made by UNESCO, click here.
We were lucky enough to have Girma Derbie as our guide in Lalibela. Not only is Girma a very experienced guide and an amazing scholar of Lalibela, he is also a devout member of the Ethiopian Orthodox church and a gentle soul. Girma’s narrative was fascinating, and his encouraging manner and helping hand literally boosted me up the difficult paths. You would be wise indeed to contact him for your tour of Lalibela. Although his website is under construction, he can be easily reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at +251 91351 3763.
On our first day, Girma recommended that we hire the services of one of the local women, whom we came to refer to as our shoe lady. We didn’t at first understand her role, but soon came to be very grateful to Fatima for her assistance. Before entering any of the churches, visitors must remove their shoes. Fatima would keep tabs on ours, as well as offer assistance with tricky footing on the paths. She spent two entire days traveling the sites with us, and she was most gracious and pleasant. If you go, be sure to take advantage of this service. We saw the results of one tourist’s failure to do so: his shoes were stolen!
Th map below shows the placement of the different churches, which are usually visited in two different groups. You’ll notice that there are variations on the spellings, due to linguistic differences.
First Group: Northern Churches
1. Bete Medhane Alem – Savior/Redeemer of the World
This church is home to the Cross of Lalibela and stands 11 meters high. Biete Medhanie is the largest of the Lalibela churches and is considered to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world. It is a monolith – carved from one large block of stone. The walls are a deep pink in color, which make the church stand out from the rugged landscape. Within the church are 72 columns, symbolizing the 72 disciples. It’s said that Christ touched one of the pillars of the church when he appeared to King Lalibela in one of his dreams.
2. Bete Maryam (Church of Mary)
There are stunning frescoes and paintings inside this church, which pays tribute to the Virgin Mary.
3. Bete Meskel (House of the Cross)
4. Bete Denagel – House of 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 upon the order of 4th century Roman emperor Julian.
These three churches are in close proximity to one another, connected by narrow paths and tricky-to-navigate entrances.
Although I could access the anteroom of the church of Golgotha, only men were allowed into the church itself. Don’t even get me started. King Lalibela’s tomb is also not available to the public. He is regarded as a saint as well as a monarch.
6. Tomb of Adam and Eve
In between the northern and southern groups of churches, one finds a village of bee huts. When King Lalibela was a boy, it is believed that he was chosen as king by this heavenly sign: a swarm of bees surrounded him. Traditional bee huts were built in memory of this, but many are no longer occupied.
Second Group: Southern Churches
1. Bete Gebrel and Rufael (Church of Gabriel and Raphael)
Below is a fascinating video of worshipers chanting during a prayer service.
2. Bete Merkoryos
This church is reached by a series of paths and tunnels from Bete Gebrel and Rufael. It is very small and it is theorized that it may have originally had a different purpose other than worship. The discovery of ankle shackles have caused speculation that it may have been used as a prison at some point.
3. Bete Amanuel
4. Bete Abba Libanos
Bete Giyorgis (St. George Church)
This spectacular church is located between the two groups. It boggles the mind to consider how this structure was created without machinery of any kind, in the late 12th or early 13th century AD. It was carved from the top down, and is made of volcanic tuff.
At first glance, it seems impossible to find the entrance to the church due to the sheer walls all around it. However, one can enter via a narrow man-made canyon/tunnel, which spirals downward and conceals the entrance in order to protect the church.
Third Group: Outside Town
St. Yemrehana Krestos Church
This church, 42 km away from Lalibela, was built inside a large cave. It is about 1,000 years old, and constructed in the Axumite style. Until the construction of a road in 2000, It was reachable only on mule or by foot. The church is still in active service to this day, and a security wall has been erected over the cave mouth to keep the site safe.
St. Na’akueto La’ab Cave Church
This church is believed to have been built by the king called Na’akueto La’ab, the successor to King Lalibela, in the 13th century. It is about 7km from Lalibela. Inside the church, water from natural springs is caught in various containers and used as holy water. Inside the church are stored many treasures like crosses, parchment, books, etc.
Asheten Mariam Monastery
We traveled 8km by car to reach this spectacular site, and then climbed to an elevation of 3150m (10,334 feet) above sea level to enter. The scenery was green and lush – not what we expected from Ethiopia!
We were winded but triumphant when we reached the top!
Bilba Kirkos Church
Although we drove 35 km to reach this church, when we finally completed the trek to the site, we couldn’t enter since the priest was away attending a funeral. We were able to wander around the yard and chat with the neighbors a bit. And yes, our guide said to take our shoes off, so…
The photos you’re seeing here were taken over the course of our four day visit. We took our time, but could have squeezed the trip down to three days if we had been in a hurry.
Ethiopia is a phenomenal country, filled with kind people and historic sites unequaled anywhere else in the world. If a visit is at all within the realm of possibility for you, don’t even hesitate – just go.
I’m going to end with a few more assorted photos. Most of these are “drive by” snapshots, which explains why the subjects sometimes look surprised. If you’d like to see them in a larger version, just click on the picture.
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4 thoughts on “The Rock Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia”
Wow, excellent article. Well researched and great photos. I feel like I’ve followed in your footsteps.
Many thanks, Library Lady!
So much beauty. Now I want to go, myself!
Magnifiques, j’ai adoré tant les photos que les commentaires!