From monasteries hosted on inaccessible hills of Meteora, Greece, to a religious festival set in a system of caves in Malaysia, I’ve seen people making a pilgrimage to truly incredible sites. Conversing with the divine always pushed borders, and believers erected architectural wonders such as Angkor Wat in the jungles of Cambodia, or Orthodox men-only land on precipices of the Mount Athos peninsula. But in Africa, I found a new level of the extraordinary – the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela!
My wandering through Ethiopia brought me to an impressive cluster of Lalibela churches! Dubbed the Ethiopian Jerusalem, this holy site of Orthodox Christianity is a monument to centuries of faith. Carved in solid rock, Lalibela churches are an unexpected surprise connecting the Earth and the heavens.
Whether you are looking for God or just exploring the history of human marvels, this Lalibela church guide will introduce you to Ethiopia’s most fascinating underground treasures!
But before we dig into this museum of architecture, some background info!
How old is the Ethiopian Church?
Christianity officially entered Ethiopia in the 4th century, during the reign of the Aksumite emperor Ezana.
The Kingdom of Aksum in the area of Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea had a strategic position on the Red Sea. Money makes the world go round, so the nation on the route between India and the Roman Empire accepted Christianity. They even had the world’s first coins with a symbol of a cross!
The man who brought the new religion over was Frumentius, a Syrian Greek, the nephew of a merchant who was murdered during a stopover on the coast. After years in slavery under Ella Amida‘s reign, he was freed and became a child tutor to the heir of the late king.
Frumentius baptized the new emperor Ezana and, with the approval of the Patriarch Athanasius of Alexandria, became the country’s first bishop. For sixteen centuries, until 1959, when the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church gained autocephaly, the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt was always appointing its bishops.
The conversion of the king of Ethiopia to Christianity was just the beginning. By 340 AD, the majority of the kingdom turned Christian. Ethiopia became the second country in the world (after Armenia) to proclaim Christianity as the state religion.
However, there are references claiming that Christianity started in Ethiopia even earlier, in the 1st century. After Judea, the apostle Matthew preached the word of God in Ethiopia until his death.
Among numerous mentions of the country’s name in the Bible, one is especially significant. According to the New Testament, Philip the Evangelist baptized an Ethiopian eunuch on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. This early conversion of a person who was different in every way (race, ethnicity, sexual minority) seems to be a fantastic lesson for the less inclusive ‘Christians’ of today!
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims to be one of the earliest capitals of Christianity. Read about another spiritual capital of the Orthodox Christian world - the Monastic State of Agion Oros!
Lalibela church history – a dream of the African Jerusalem
In the 6th century, Aksumite king Kaleb founded the city of Roha in the Lasta Mountains in the South. The Islamic Empire soon took control over the Red Sea, and the kingdom started to decline. They moved the capital from Aksum to Roha.
In the 12th century, a boy surrounded by a swarm of bees was born there. It was interpreted as a sign of good fortune for the kingdom’s future.
The boy who would later become king was named Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (the world Lalibela meaning “the bees obey him” in English). His youth was also mysterious; Lalibela had visions and talked to angels.
A voice in King Lalibela’s vision instructed him to build a new home for Christianity, the second Jerusalem
The king made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem seven years before it would fall into Muslim hands. The siege of the holy city in 1187 meant that Christians would not be able to visit it anymore. A voice in one of Lalibela’s visions instructed him to build a new home for Christianity, the second Jerusalem.
In the highlands of Ethiopia, more than 3.500 kilometers away from the town where Jesus was crucified, the ‘New Jerusalem’ was taking shape. Lalibela church bundle literally rose from the ground, dug out of the mountain floor. With clear inspiration from biblical places, they even named the town river – Jordan.
The extraordinary feat of rock-cut churches honored the most famous king of the Zagwe dynasty, and the town of Roha changed its name to Lalibela!
A man in Indonesia has also built a church after receiving instructions in a vision. Check out this very peculiar Chicken Church!
Rock-hewn churches of Lalibela – architecture made by angels
According to the Gospel written by that same apostle Matthew who preached all over Ethiopia, in the most famous biblical name change, Simon became Peter. Jesus named the first leader of the early church: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Maybe Lalibela was very literal in interpreting the word of God, so he laid the cornerstone of the ‘New Jerusalem’ in – stone.
Technically, Lalibela churches were always there. They just needed to be carved out of the mountain formed 31 million years ago.
Lalibela rock churches were built by hand, using just hammers and chisels to excavate trenches, and then shape the monoliths into churches, imitating the traditional look. Doors, windows, columns, archways, vaults…
There was not much room for error while working on the volcanic tuff rock. No space for fixing mistakes during the Lalibela church construction.
In total, there are eleven rock-hewn churches in Lalibela. Each carved from a gigantic block of natural rock, they differ in style. Additionally, they built a complex system of tunnels and subterranean passageways to interconnect the churches.
Lalibela architecture is a fascinating monument to the passion of its builders. According to some (doubtfully reliable) sources, it took merely 23 years to build Lalibela churches, which would have been an extraordinary achievement in the Middle Ages!
But Lalibela architects had help! After the human workers would call it a day, the angels would take over the night shift. That’s at least how believers explain the remarkable speed at which builders erected the black Jerusalem.
Aksumite civilization clearly had high skills in working with monoliths. Learn more about it in our article Kingdom of Aksum: History and myths written in stone.
Lalibela churches mystery of attraction
When Lalibela started materializing his extraordinary dream, he was aware that Jerusalem was attracting Ethiopians. The king knew they would try to reach the holy city, at least once in their lifetime, even despite the dangers imposed by the Muslim takeover.
Building a New Jerusalem, closer to home, fulfilled their need for elevated religious experience, and they started flocking in.
Until these days, the palmers were coming from all corners of Ethiopia, sometimes walking barefoot and fasting. For some of them, reaching Lalibela town might be an end of a several-month-long journey. That kind of devotion is considered to be proof of strong faith that God would honor.
In the Philippines, pilgrims testify their faith on Easter in a rather extreme way. They are crucifying themselves during the Maleldo Festival!
You can witness the magical attraction of Lalibela churches first-hand, at any moment of your visit.
Pilgrims gather in white robes, with sticks or umbrellas in their hands, resting in front of the rock-hewn churches, on carpets or bare stone.
Some sing in churches. Some read their Bibles in front of the buildings, alone or seated in a group. Others quietly pray while leaning against the churches’ walls, showing ultimate respect to these monuments of Orthodox Christianity.
You can witness ordinary life there too. Women plucking the seeds of teff, the national grain of Ethiopia. Simply tacked sheds on the churches’ grounds, with a size of a typical Japanese capsule room, suggest certain believers live on the premises. It’s life at its simplest. A sheep might pass by at any moment! And it will!
After the Sunday mass, some worshippers might visit the place with holy water nearby, to shower. Then the priest might touch parts of their bodies with a ritual cross, to clean them from the inside too. Lalibela church mystery comes in many forms.
On special occasions, such as Christmas, thousands of pilgrims arrive in Lalibela. Locals feed them and wash their feet at the end of their journey. Check out what the Christmas celebration looks like in Lalibela churches in the coverage by CBS 60 minutes on Youtube!
Guide through Lalibela churches – the sacred monoliths
There are 11 rock-hewn churches in Lalibela town. We can divide them into three clusters: five churches in the Northwestern group (symbolizing the earthly Jerusalem), five of them in the Southeastern group (symbolizing the heavenly Jerusalem), and the last Lalibela church standing alone, in the West.
It’s up to you to decide which ones you should see first. The Northwestern group is the closest to the ticket office, the lonely Bete Giyorgis is a masterpiece of its own, and the Southeastern group seems to provide more tranquility, with fewer crowds.
If you want to dig deeper into the mysteries of Lalibela, consider purchasing this Lalibela handbook!
It’s useful to notice that Lalibela underground churches carry different names in different sources. Google maps might say one thing, UNESCO could disagree, Lonely Planet might insist on their version, and locals could be using completely different wording.
It could get confusing, trust me! Well, I tried to keep the nomenclature I found the most often used, even if it might seem inconsistent. I did mention the other name versions where I found them to be relevant.
Without further ado, what are the 11 rock-hewn churches of Lalibela?
List of the 11 rock-hewn churches of Lalibela
1. St. George Church – Bete Giyorgis – House of St. George
Lalibela church of St. George (Bete Giyorgis, sometimes spelled Bet Giorgis or Biete Ghiorgis) has a shape of a Greek Orthodox cross.
While other rock-hewn churches of Lalibela typically have a rectangular plan, the cruciform layout of St. George Church secured its iconic status. The view from one of the uplifts reveals that the roof contains several reliefs of crosses, one inside the other.
This Lalibela church was the last one built, and supposedly by the orders of Saint George himself. In one of his visions, king Lalibela encountered the saint after the completion of the other rock-hewn churches.
George was not happy about being forgotten, so Lalibela commissioned another church, in his name. St. George turned out to be impatient as well, as they claim he worked on the construction site at night.
For many, the most impressive Lalibela church stands 13 meters tall, in a pit of 25 by 25 meters. When observed from above, Bete Giyorgis (House of St. George) seems hardly accessible. But there is a narrow descending trench spiraling around it, leading through a covered passage that eventually opens in the church courtyard.
Life and death join here. The baptismal pool is the start of the Christian life, while the holes in the side walls hide burial tombs of the ancient pilgrims. There are even people living in some of these little caves!
Inside the church, there are various paintings of Saint George defeating the dragon. Some are hidden in the sanctuary behind the curtain, together with the replica of the Ark of the Covenant, a typical artifact reserved for the eyes of the Ethiopian priests only.
Twelve windows in the upper part of the church let the sunshine into its dark interior, with sunrays adding to the mystic atmosphere created by the incense smoke.
Did you know you can build your own Lalibela church? This jigsaw puzzle is perfect for the modern architect's mind!
2. Bete Medhane Alem – House of the Savior of the World
Bete Medhane Alem is not just the largest of the 11 rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. It is also considered to be the largest rock church in the world! It has 33,5 meters in length, 23,5 meters in width, and 11,5 meters in height!
According to some, this large monolith is a rock replica of St. Mary of Zion Church in Aksum, the one neighboring the chapel with supposedly original stone tablets of God’s Ten Commandments.
The simple architecture of Bete Medhane Alem (House of the Savior of the World) is marked by 34 external and 38 internal pillars. It also features keyhole windows and doors, typical of the Aksum style.
Its spacious interior with a nave and four aisles gets packed on Sundays, as the worshipers gather to be blessed by the famous Lalibela Cross.
The ornamented processional cross, made of 7 kilograms of gold, supposedly has healing properties. You may see the priest rubbing the pilgrims with it, in order to cure them of diseases.
This 12th-century cross was absent from 1997 till 2001 when it was stolen and sold to a Belgian collector for 25 thousand dollars. I assume they keep it in a safer place now!
Same as at Bete Giyorgis, the courtyard walls have carved-out holes, functioning as tombs or cells for the monks.
3. Bete Maryam – House of Mary
A short tunnel away from Bete Medhane Alem, another courtyard is revealed, dominated by Bete Maryam (or Biete Mariam). The House of Mary is obviously dedicated to the mother of Jesus and is supposedly the oldest of Lalibela rock churches.
The interior of the nave and four aisles are decorated with frescoes and relief carvings. While you can see various geometric designs and paintings such as one of the bulls fighting in the ceiling, one column containing holy inscriptions has permanently been hidden behind a cloth since the 16th century.
Bete Maryam is the only Lalibela church with porches.
Above the western one, you can see a carving of St. George killing a dragon. Cross and swastika-shaped windows also draw attention.
The eastern wall is especially symbolic. The upper set of windows represents the Holy Trinity. The lower windows depict the Calvary of Jesus. The central windows represent the ascent of Christ to heaven. The lower right window stands for the criminal who repented on the cross, thus there is another opening above that window. The other crucified sinner went to hell, so there’s an opening below the window representing him.
4. Bet Meskel – House of the Cross
On the northern side of Bete Maryam’s courtyard, Bet Meskel (or Biete Maskal) is a small chapel with two aisles only.
There are paintings of Jesus and Mary displayed on some of the pillars of the House of the Cross.
Its tiny size and the priest with pocket-size Bibles might be the biggest ‘attractions’ of Bet Meskel.
5. Bet Denagel – House of Virgins
On the southern side of Bete Maryam’s courtyard, another tiny chapel is carved into a rock.
In Bet Denagel (Bet Danaghel), there’s just enough space for a couple of benches and a canvas with another representation of St. George fighting the dragon. With his image being everywhere, it seems everybody took it seriously when the saint got offended on that occasion!
Bet Denagel is the House of Virgins. Virgins are the 50 nuns that were murdered in the 4th century by the orders of the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate from Edessa. The church resembling a cave is honoring the memory of these martyrs.
6. Bet Golgotha & Bet Mikael – House of Golgotha Mikael
Further west, Bet Golgotha and Bet Mikael are the twin churches, the only part of the Northwestern group of Lalibela churches I couldn’t approach closer during my visit, due to restoration works.
UNESCO calls them together – Biete Golgotha Mikael (the House of Golgotha Mikael).
Bet Mikael (which is also known as Debre Sina, the Church of Mount Sinai) is known for its relief-carved crosses and cruciform pillars.
Bet Golgotha with its life-size carvings of the twelve apostles is off-limits to women and adjoined Selassie or Sillase Chapel (Trinity Chapel) is closed for anyone but priests.
Supposedly, Lalibela’s final resting place should be under the floor of Bet Golgotha. A Portuguese priest Francisco Alvares described the tomb in 1520 when it was still accessible. He said a heavy stone slab was covering the crypt. There was a hole in it, and pilgrims could touch the grave of the king-saint. The extracted dust was supposedly healing diseases.
In this holy complex, there are also replicas of the tombs of Christ and Adam, as well as the Nativity crib. I’ve managed to see the Tomb of Adam only from above. Supposedly, it is just a hollow block of stone. But what more do you expect from a symbol?
7. Bet Gabriel-Rufael – House of Gabriel and Raphael
Bet Gabriel-Rufael (also Biete Gabriel-Raphael, and all other word combos) is the first edifice you will encounter when approaching the Southeastern group of Lalibela churches through their main entrance.
Follow the path called the Way to Heaven, and a monumental rock-hewn church will appear in front of you!
Also known as the House of Archangels, this twin church has an impressive exterior. To access the building, one needs to cross the bridge carved in the rock over a deep trench. This moat fills with water when it rains. To keep it, there is an underground cistern below the courtyard, with two circular wells.
The stairs and the terrace suspended over the abyss are quite an imposing sight. If you’re not afraid of approaching the void, this Lalibela church offers a great photo opportunity (scroll to the end of the article to see mine)!
Once inside, this fortress looks quite simple. The entrance opens to Bet Gabriel first, and then there is another doorway to Bet Rufael. Apparently, there should also be hidden rooms below the main church plan.
Some experts believe that the House of Gabriel and Raphael was actually a royal palace built in the 7th century. The idea was to provide a fortified shelter for the emperor after the collapse of the Axumite Kingdom in the North.
8. Bet Merkorios – House of St. Mercoreos
If Bet Gabriel-Rufael was accessed via the Way to Heaven, the next Lalibela church is approached via the Passage through Hell.
There is a pitch-black underground tunnel, 35 meters in length, and according to tradition, one should pass it without turning on any light! That includes mobile phone torches.
Well, it’s an experience! A survivable one, as long as you step forward slowly and mind your head!
Finally, some light will emerge, and this will be the exit to Bet Merkorios, also written as Bete Mekireriwos, or Biete Qeddus Mercoreus… Linguistics gets complicated, right?
Mercurios (let’s write his name this way, just for the sake of diversity) was a Coptic saint in the 3rd century. Emperor Decius tortured and beheaded him because he refused to abandon Christianity.
It is not unusual that this church got its name after a martyr. The evidence of the iron ankle shackles discovered here suggests that the House of St. Mercoreos could have been Lalibela town’s prison or courtroom.
Today, it is another sacred place, with beautiful frescoes and paintings depicting the saint, Christ, and apostles.
9. Bet Amanuel – House of Emmanuel
The only freestanding monolith of the southern cluster is Bet Amanuel (Biete Amanuel). It was carved with great attention to detail, reproducing the characteristic features of the ancient Aksumite and early medieval architecture.
With 12 meters in height, the House of Emmanuel has alternating layers of protruding and indented walls, mimicking the style of Debre Damo Monastery or Yemrehana Krestos Church, built with a combination of wood and stone.
The same as in the case of the other clusters’ main monolith representatives, this one is also surrounded by hermit cells and grave chambers carved in the moat walls.
Bet Amanuel was supposedly the private chapel of the royal family.
10. Bet Lehem – House of Holy Bread
There is not much information about this church with oval walls. Resembling more a monastic cell, with its low ceilings, Bet Lehem (Biete Lehem) has no typical church inventory.
Deriving its name from the Hebrew ‘Bethlehem’, it could have been just a royal bakery, where they produced the holy bread.
Speaking of holy bread, if you visit Lalibela rock churches during the busy Sunday mass, you will see the communion service is with real bread distributed among the faithful. Typically, that involves children and elderly people. Those in the middle, at a sexually active age, should avoid taking the Eucharist.
11. Bet Abba Libanos – House of Abbot Libanos
Bet Abba Libanos (also Biete, sometimes Aba) is dedicated to a 6th-century Ethiopian saint of the same name. He got famous for his teachings on monasticism.
The House of Abbot Libanos differs from other Lalibela churches in a way that it is just partially underground. Wedged between the top and bottom rock, it was built in the hillside cave.
According to the legend, Bet Abba Libanos was constructed in a single night (consequently, it is not strange it had to go through many restorations!).
The builder was Meskel Kebra, the wife of King Lalibela, with the help of several angels. Just like her husband, she is also considered to be a saint and is buried in Bet Abba Libanos.
Check out how Hindus express their faith also in caves! Temples built in Batu Caves attract more than a million visitors during Thaipusam Festival!
Lalibela churches protected by UNESCO. Or not?
In 1978, the 11 churches of Lalibela were inscribed on UNESCO‘s list of World Heritage Sites.
Besides the Ethiopian rock churches, the protection also includes Lasta Tukuls, the neighboring ancient village with two-story roundhouses. These traditional dwellings are constructed from local red stone, they have staircases inside and thatched roofs above.
In 2008, the European Union has funded the raising of the protective shelters above some of the churches. The ugly-looking coverings were supposed to shield the most vulnerable buildings from disastrous weather. Even if the umbrella-style structures were imagined as a temporary solution to the problem, they are still standing today.
Gas station roofs, as locals like to call them, started to represent a threat to the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. First of all, they are heavy and could collapse. Secondly, they were intended to keep churches from becoming too wet. And now the Ethiopian rock churches are the driest ever, which is also not good for their longevity.
Different nations celebrate their beliefs in different ways. See how this Vietnamese Jesus came to be in one of the least religious countries in the world!
Things to know before entering Lalibela churches
There are certain rules of conduct when visiting the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Don’t be that idiot that just takes loads of images with no respect towards the locals who actually come there to pray! These are simple top 3 rules to know before stepping inside Lalibela church:
- Take your shoes off before entering Lalibela rock churches! You can leave them at the entrance, like everyone else! As for the rest of the dress code, wear something covering your shoulders and knees!
- Observe the locals! If you see men and women entering churches at the separate entrance, respect that, and follow the example!
- Do not take flash photography in the church! There is a reason, I guess, why they wrote the warning in German (“Bitte brauchen sie keinen flash in die kirche”). In any case, don’t be disrespectful with the clicking of your camera. Nobody is your private model! If you do get permission to photograph someone, express your gratitude with some Bir!
Speaking of photography, I had a very peculiar adventure in Bete Giyorgis, marked by an international incident. Check out my report on obsessive photography, and how to avoid the police once they come for you!
Lalibela church entrance fee
The adult ticket costs 50 US Dollars (45 Euros). Children’s tickets are half of that amount. The tickets are valid for 5 days. All sites could be visited in one full day, so if you stay longer, relax, and do it at a human pace!
Beware that bringing in video cameras could impose an additional fee. I decided not to take my GoPro camera, as they know it can record video footage. At the same time, other cameras that look like photo cameras, as well as mobile phones, were totally fine to carry in.
Lalibela churches opening hours
The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela officially open from 8 am till noon, and then after a lunch break, from 2 till 5 pm. You’re allowed to come earlier without entering churches, and witness Bete Giyorgis at sunrise for instance!
11 rock-hewn churches of Lalibela – Conclusion
If there would be a competition for the eighth world wonder, Lalibela rock churches would be a solid contender.
In Ethiopian highlands, hidden in the ground, the sacred landscape reveals itself, strengthening the faith of believers for centuries.
They come poor and leave rich. They come sick and get a cure. In these manmade caves, they find God.
The fantastic structures were built from top to bottom. Nobody else builds a house like that in this world! This makes Lalibela churches a very special example of medieval architecture. Buildings that are essentially sculptures do not cease to amaze.
There are not many long-lasting legacies in the world. With poor standards of Ethiopian housing, rock-hewn churches that survived centuries have to be divine. So divine that, when conservators were working on protecting these rocks, priests would collect the dust from the drilled holes. It’s a sacred stone they have! After all, they were designed by angels!
Ethiopia might not be on everyone’s radar. But if you decide to give it a chance, and literally dig under the surface, you might be surprised by what you find!
Lalibela is located in the Amhara region, in the North Wollo zone. This mountain town is some 645 kilometers away from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
Lalibela altitude: 2.480 m
The population of Lalibela town: 17.367 (2007 census)
How to get to Lalibela?
It may look close on the map, but reaching Lalibela town from Addis Ababa by bus will take two days (overnight stopover in Dessie).
For travelers coming from western Ethiopia: If you go to Lalibela from Bahir Dar, it will be a one-day ride. Traveling by bus from Gondar will again require spending the night somewhere.
For travelers coming from northern Ethiopia: If you go to Lalibela from Aksum, you will need to stop over in Mekelle and probably once again in Weldiya. Unless you make a purposeful stop in Mekelle for visiting the Danakil Depression, as I did, in which case your desert trip agency can drop you off at Lalibela directly as mine did!
Of course, van transport is always quicker than the bus. It all depends on the experience you want to have. And risks vary when you travel Ethiopian roads.
The fastest way would be to fly in, as Lalibela has its own airport.
Where to stay in Lalibela?
If you’re looking into where to stay in Lalibela, check the best offer of Lalibela hotels here.
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