The Rock Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia


የኢትዮጵያ ታሪክ፥ ላሊበላ

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 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.

A view from ground level.
Looking up at the church walls from the path to the entrance, below ground.
A nun, in yellow, and other worshipers. People traditionally wear white when they attend services.
Visitors can see caves in the sides of the excavation, where pilgrims stayed.
Beautiful lighting enhances the interior.
The drum is symbolic of the Bible: the smaller end represents the 27 books of the New Testament, the larger end, the 39 books of the Old Testament. The webbing represents Jesus, who bridges the two.
The columns of Bet Mehdan are colossal.
The interior of the church combines ancient and modern artwork.

2. Bete Maryam (Church of Mary)

There are stunning frescoes and paintings inside this church, which pays tribute to the Virgin Mary.




Spectacular frescoes are displayed on the ceiling.



The curtain separates the holiest part of the church, accessible only to priests, from the public area.


3. Bete Meskel (House of the Cross)

Worshipers viewing some of the ancient treasures.
The swastika did not take on its current negative meaning until the 20th century. In other cultures, it was a symbol of life and eternity.
Additional window shapes.
Candles and frankincense for use in worship.
All the churches have mats and rugs on the rock floors.

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.


5. Golgotha (King Lalibela’s Tomb)/Debre Sinay/St. Michael’s

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.

Interior of Golgotha. There are statues of all the apostles, in the above style, but only a few are outside the men-only zone.
This is the bench where we females waited while the males were inside. If you want to see photos, you’ll have to wait until my husband,, publishes his Ethiopia blog.

6. Tomb of Adam and Eve

Here is a snap of my husband Craig as well as Fatima, our helper. You’ll notice that she is officially licensed to be at the site, and was kind enough to carry Craig’s jacket for him as the day warmed up.


Bee Huts

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.


Just outside the frame of this photo, a young man sat at a desk and decorated these scrolls by hand. I wish we had purchased one! The reason we didn’t was the incredible aggression of the vendors – any time we showed the slightest interest in purchasing something, we were surrounded by people trying to outdo one another for our attention and money. I found it overwhelming, and avoided the chaos when possible.

Second Group: Southern Churches

1. Bete Gebrel and Rufael (Church of Gabriel and Raphael)

Ethiopian Orthodox nuns wear bright yellow robes, and frequently walk the paths between the churches.
The paths to the churches seem like they’re always uphill!


Below is a fascinating video of worshipers chanting during a prayer service.

Although this was a men only service, the gentlemen were very welcoming to me.
The sticks are used as supports to lean on, since the services can be hours long and chairs aren’t usually available during them.
When they noticed I was having trouble seeing, they invited me to thread my way through to a higher vantage point. Notice the small rhythm instruments that the men are holding.
An older man beckoned the youngster in red to take his place at the drum, so that he could practice being part of the worship.
A much better view for 5’1″ me!
The exterior of Gebrel & Rufael Church

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

Copy of a 17th century painted canvas depicting St Gabra Manfas Qeddus known as Abo. He was founder of the monastery of Zuqualla and reputedly lived for 362 years.
saint horse1
Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki

4. Bete Abba Libanos

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.


Pilgrims would travel to the site and simply stay until they died. Their bodies were allowed to remain in the niches in the church wall, mummifying in the process.
George dragon
St. George the dragon slayer.

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.


These rocks ring when tapped.



vessels of holy water.



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!


Keep climbing!


Mariam 16
A spring


We were winded but triumphant when we reached the top!

I was glad my boots had zippers – easy on and off.
The church interior was very dim, so I didn’t take many photos. Here are a couple to give you an idea of the inside.
Behind the red curtain is the Holy of Holies, accessible only to the priests.
This young man made sure we were able to take good photos of the religious artifacts. Because the interior was very dimly lit, he walked to the door with each piece and waited patiently for us to take our pictures.


These are the thumbprints of those who worked on this book.

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…
Entryway to the compound
It’s a low threshold!
The church entrance, locked up tight
Neighbors who keep an eye on things. The man is holding a fly whisk  made of the tail of an animal.
Grafitti of the Lion of Judah.
I wanted to buy this child a new dress.
These little girls accompanied us the entire way, taking shortcuts through the woods and popping up here and there between the trees.
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.
Thanks for reading – I appreciate your time! I’d love it if you would follow me, and please leave a comment. Ciao!

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