Lalibela: The Jerusalem of Ethiopia

In this article, we are not going to bore you with a few hundred words attempting to describe the beauty of Lalibela. Rather, we will show you the best images of the UNESCO rock-hewn churches in the small town in northern Ethiopia and provide you with some brief information of the sites as well as travel tips.

Lalibela Town

Lalibela is regarded as the New Jerusalem because the famous rock-hewn churches draw thousands of pilgrims there each year. In the 12th century, King Lalibela, Ethiopian leader and Christian, ordered the building of a second Jerusalem when the original was captured by Muslims in 1187 under the command of their leader Saladin.

A spectacular view of Lalibela

Lalibela is a much smaller town compared to Aksum that we talked about in the last article Christianity in Ethiopia: The Seduction of Queen Sheba and King Solomon. It is also much more rural, with less infrastructure and hotels. Yet, you can stay in some of the most luxurious yet affordable hotels there and enjoy a spectacular elevated view of Lalibela. The hotel that we chose was Cliff Edge Hotel which costs only a little over HK$400 per night (US$53; £41). Not only did the hotel room provide a jacuzzi, it also had a balcony from which you can see the marvelous view of the Lalibela town.

View from the hotel room balcony

Hotel room in Cliff Edge Hotel

Most people visit Lalibela for its numerous ‘living’ rock-hewn churches. In our previous articles, we have introduced the Abuna Yemata church and the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. Surprisingly, they are not UNESCO heritage sites. Yet, in Lalibela, there are eleven monolithic churches which UNESCO recognises. The churches are located in a mountainous region in the heart of the rural town. Built in the 12th and 13th century, the churches were attributed to King Lalibela (1162 - 1221) who determined to build a ‘New Jerusalem’ in Lalibela after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the holy Land.

Another reason that distinguishes these churches from others in the country is that they are connected by an extensive system of drainage ditches, trenches and ceremonial passages, some with openings to hermit caves and catacombs. Perhaps this is also the reason why they are listed as UNESCO sites. The other ten churches share structural similarities yet they are unique in style. Let’s take a closer look at some of them.

Bete Giyorgis (The Church of Saint George)

Bete Giyorgis is perhaps the most famous out of the eleven. It is isolated from the other ten but connected to them by a system of trenches. It stands out the most amongst all with a 15m-high three-tiered plinth in the shape of a Greek cross. What’s more, it is perfectly proportioned, 25m x 25m wide, and requires no internal pillars.

Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World)

It is said to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world, measuring 33.5m by 23.5m in width and is more than 11.5m in height.

Passages from one church to another

Biete Maryam (House of Mary)

The House of Mary is the only one with interior décor of paintings and engravings of religious symbols. Some say that the interior represents how King Lalibela envisioned heaven to be like.

Interior décor of Biete Maryam

One of the entrances to the churches

Biete Gabriel Rufael (House of the angels Gabriel, and Raphael)

One of the most memorable moments was when we had to walk for 10 minutes through a pitch-black tunnel from Biete Gabriel Rufael to another church. The tunnel is so narrow that it only fits one person. To ensure that you don’t trip or hit your head, you have to keep your hand up and feel the height of the ceiling as you go. Thinking of bringing a torch? Ditch the idea! It is important that you experience the dark journey which mimics the way from Hell to Heaven.

View from one of the windows in the church

Biete Lehem (House of Holy Bread)

Paintings in the church

Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos)

Abba Libanos is one of the Nine Saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. Legend says Biete Abba Libanos was constructed in a single night by Lalibela’s wife, Meskel Kebra, with a little help from angels.

Bet Amanuel (House of Emmanuel)

Bet Amanuel is one of Lalibela’s most finely carved churches. Some have suggested it was the royal family’s private chapel.

Yemrehanna Kristos (a twelfth-century Zagwe priest-king and saint)

The church is located 12 miles Northeast from Lalibela, away from the previous churches. However, this church is worth the 90 mins drive as the whole church sits on a foundation of carefully laid olive-wood panels, which ‘float’ it perfectly above the marshy ground. You are required to take your shoes off (in fact in all churches) but the panels are extremely soft so you don’t have to worry about hurting your feet.

The man dressed in black (above) is an Ethiopian Orthodox church priest who was also visiting Lalibela’s churches. 

An Ethiopian Orthodox priest

Mummied bodies behind the church

Ceiling of the church

Behind the church lies a pile of mummified bodies. Some are those of pilgrims who had choose to die at the church over the centuries; others are said to be those of the workmen.

To mark the end of the Ethiopia series, here are some personal travel tips.

1. Flash is allowed when taking pictures of anything on stone surfaces (including wall paintings in churches). However, DO NOT use flash when taking photos of any paintings or pictures in frames.

2. Many assume that flies are everywhere in Ethiopia. However, I only noticed more flies in the church areas in Lalibela. Simply spray on some bug repellent before heading outdoors.

3. Ethiopia is not very hot. The weather is extremely pleasant and quite cool in the mornings and evenings. Short sleeves are suitable for the afternoon but be sure to bring a jacket with you.