The most well known place in Ethiopia, Lalibela is home to eleven monolithic churches, built during the reign of King Lalibela (1181-1221). A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was originally built as a local equivalent of Jerusalem to save pilgrims the long journey from Ethiopia. The churches were cut out of the rock by hand using iron tools.
Bete Giyorgis or St George is the most famous church, the last to be built, and the best preserved thanks to it’s hard rock. It’s somewhat surreal to see a church built into the rock below, with a 15m drop down to it.
It is reached by trenches and tunnels, an atmospheric way to approach.
Inside there isn’t much to see other than a few paintings and a large locked olive wood box containing the tools used 800 years ago to build the eleven churches.
Around the church are numerous holes in the walls, one of which contained 300 year old mummies.
Bete Giyorgis is close to the northern group of six churches which were the first built, and some of the most impressive. Above them are a pair of huge roofs, installed in 2008 by UNESCO to protect the softer rock below.
Bete Maryam or St. Mary may have been the to be first built, but little is known for certain about the Lalibela churches. It is one of the most beautiful of the eleven churches.
It is the most popular with pilgrims, particularly when I returned the following day during the celebration of St. Mary, with hundreds of white clothed devotees around and inside the church.
Next to it is the small chapel of Bete Maskel.
The tower above is a much newer tomb, only 70-80 years old.
The three main churches are connected by passageways.
Bete Medhane Alem is the largest church on site, and the largest rock-hewn church in the world, over 33m long and 23m wide. The layout follows the cathedral of Aksum destroyed in 16th century. New columns were added in the 1950s.
Next to it is the smallest church in Lalibela, Bete Danaghel or House of Virgins, home to a painting of St George.
The Tomb of Adam is in front of Bete Uraiel.
Bete Golgota-Selassié is two small churches in one building. The Golgota church is only open to men, as it is home to tomb of King Lalibela. It has some wonderful carvings of the twelve apostles.
Lalibela is the most popular tourist site in Ethiopia, attracting 80-100,000 people in 2019, with 200 local guides based in town. Even in peak season around Christmas it didn’t seem too busy, though it was hard to avoid other groups at time. The worst was at Bete Giyorgis when groups were coming in and out of the church as shown below, but this wasn’t representative of the general experience.
The southern group of four churches are newer than the northern group, but as the rock wasn’t as strong they’ve not lasted as well.
Bete Gabriek-Rufael is another building contains two churches, reached now by a bridge, but originally by a narrow ridge with a steep drop on either side. One way of making people feel closer to God!
Betelehem is a small area originally used for preparing for religious ceremonies.
A 35m long pitch black tunnel is meant to represent Hell, and was quite unnerving to walk through using my hands to avoid hitting my head.
Bete Merkorio is mostly collapsed now but had atmospheric rays of light through a cross shaped window.
Bete Amanuel is the only church in the southern group that is fully monolithic, and is the youngest in this group and second youngest overall.
Bete Aba Libanos was the final church visited, and by then even I was suffering from church fatigue. It had a nice facade but little inside.
To finish where I finished, watching a glorious sunset from Mt Tabor, just above the southern group.