Although the eleven monolithic rock carved churches are the reason people visit Lalibela, there are other things to see and do, which personally I found as enjoyable and interesting.
About an hour from Lalibela, Yemrehana Krestos Church is a beautiful church built within a cave, dating from the late 10th century, about 80 years before the Lalibela churches started to be carved.
A chapel and small house opposite were built for the then King and Queen from ebony wood and limestone plaster. For a near thousand year building it is incredibly well preserved, helped by being inside a natural cave.
The inside of the chapel is wonderfully atmospheric.
Behind the chapel are the tombs of the king, queen and followers.
At the back of the cave are the remains, some mummified, of around 5,000 pilgrims and chapel workers.
Back in Lalibela the Ben Abeba restaurant is certainly the most striking modern building in town. Opened in 2011 by a Scottish lady and local partner, the menu is as imaginative as the building, though the service is typical Ethiopian. It’s a good place for lunch to enjoy the stunning views.
After a large lunch it seemed like a good idea to go for a steep, fast 10km return walk up and down 650m in peak afternoon heat and no shade up to Asheton Maryam Monastery.
The first challenge was finding the track to shortcut the switchback road. I figured anything that went up the hillside would probably work, and it did, offering increasingly good views of Lalibela below.
It was rather steep, slippery and exposed though…
At the top was a ridge with wonderful views.
Behind which was a small village, with fields, and locals offering coffee.
Beyond the village was a sweeping track round the cliff face to the monastery. This was started before the Lalibela rock churches below but finished afterwards by King Lalibela’s successor. King Lalibela abandoned it as the rock was too soft, so he moved to the harder rock below where the town now is.
There were some rock tunnels to pass through before reaching the monastery.
It was quite small and underwhelming inside but the priest offered to pose with his Gonder cross.
Above the church were panoramic views across the landscape, though shooting into the setting sun wasn’t easy.
I had set myself a deadline of 5pm to turnaround wherever I’d got to but I reached the church at spot on 5pm so it seemed a waste not to visit it. By the time I left at 5.25pm I was keen to get back down to Lalibela before the sun set. Following the locals I found a more direct and less steep way back to town, enjoying the views, and getting back to my hotel an hour later.