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The Rock hewn churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia

Lalibela, in the North of Ethiopia, is famous for its roch hewn churches.. A must see for everyone visiting Ethiopia, and for many Ethiopian pelgrims.

The 11 monolithic churches date from the 13th century. According to the legend, king Lalibela got the assignment from God, and with the help of Angels completed the work.

Nowadays, many pelgrims visit the site. and there's the odd traveler, enjoying the scenery and amazing churches. Best time to visit is during a festival or ceremony.

Lalibela is on any tour visiting the North of Ethiopia. Find out more about these tours on the Adventure travel Ethiopia page. Or read about our visit to Lalibela below.

A pelgrim kisses a rock hewn church in Lalibela
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More Adventure travel tales in Ethiopia:
Bahir Dar, Lake Tana
Lake Langano
Omo Valley
Ancient African Tribes
African Christmas
Other African Tales:
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
Masai Tribe, Kenya
Ngorongoro Area

From Lake Tana to Lalibela via the Great Rift Canyon

After a few quiet days on the campsite near Lake Tana, most of us have to get used to waking up early again. Yet, around 8.30 AM everything is packed away in the overland truck and we are ready to roll.

We leave Bahir Dar and lake Tana, cross the Blue Nile for the last time, and head for Lalibela. The first part of the trip is nice and green, and we see a lot of nice birds: Ibises, storks, and the lot. But then we move up into the mountains.

Views over the great rift valley
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The population in the mountain regions is a lot poorer, but very friendly. At our lunch stop, a boy with no pants is dressed by us, and he rewards us all with a kiss.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to dress everyone who needs clothes, knowing that the nights are pretty cold at these heights.

We climb up to almost 4000 meters before we descend into the Great Rift Valley. When the road follows a mountain rim we have a great view over the valley on both sides of the road.

The Great Rift Valley stretches from the North of Ethiopia, along the east coast of Africa, until South Africa.

Lalibela is located on the mountain edge on the other side of the valley. As we make our descent, we can see it from afar.

But before we reach it, we have to make camp in the valley first. We arrange a local guard because this is not the safest area, although we notice nothing of any insecurity.

Arriving in Lalibela

The remaining part of the trip is not far, and suddenly the roads are paved with asphalt again. So we arrive before lunch at the hotel in Lalibela where we will make our camp.

The rest of the day we take it slow. We explore the city (more like a village) a bit, but get tired of the local boys continuously asking questions.

So we head back, only to join a larger group to visit a local school. The same boys follow us again, but there are more people for them to ask their questions, which is better for us.

At the local school, all attention is drawn to us, almost causing the lessons to be cancelled. We insist that they go on, but as we leave the building, half the class abandons the lessons to follow us.

Yet, it was interesting to see that the lessons were followed by students of all ages, from 8 until 40 years old.

The legend of King Lalibela

A priest at one of the churches in Lalibela
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The following morning, it is time for part one of our excursion to the churches. We are lucky, it is the day of the Trinity and a large number of pilgrims are here.

First, we are told about the legend of the king Lalibela. Before he became king, he was poisoned by his brother and predecessor, who regarded him as a threat to the throne.

Being in a coma, he came to God, who gave him the mission to hew 10 churches from the rocks. In return, he could return to earth as the new king. With the help of Angels, he completed his task.

After the completion, St. George arrived, ordering his own church, which became the largest and most beautiful one.

The rock hewn churches of Lalibela were cut from massive volcanic rock soil. First, the contours were cut out deep, and then the decorations and interior were cut out from the outside in.

We walk around the first church, in fact in a deep canyon, with to the left the steep rock facade, and to the right the church, as high and in the same color.

But the church features pillars, decorations and windows in different shapes. A pilgrim kissing the church and a priest in yellow sitting in a cave opening complete the scene.

Tabernacle, crosses and relics

A Lalibela priest showing one of the crosses
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Inside the church are different rooms. Unfortunately, the frescoes on the wall aren’t well preserved.

In a separate room, a priest is showing the cross of the church, which we are allowed to photograph.

The different historic cities in Ethiopia (Aksum, Godar, Lalibela) have their own type of crosses, but in Lalibela crosses of the other types are also present. Each church features one or two crosses.

Our next church is small, but features a tabernacle (aka ark). It is a kind of chest, in which relics are kept.

It is suggested that this one actually is the Ark of the Covenant, in which Moses stored the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments.

Historians are still searching for it, and it is supposed to be in Ethiopia. But there is little evidence that this is the one, the tablets are gone, and it looks just like a simple chest.

Chruch of St. George, the most famous of the Lalibela churches
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Meanwhile, there is a ceremony going on outside of the churches. In between the rock facades, priests are murmuring their prayers accompanied by a drum.

A great decor for such a ritual. Only downside are some tin roofs above some churches, required to prevent further decay.

Then there is a church featuring a pillar with the Devine Prediction for the world. But it is covered with sheets, since it would not be suitable for simple mortals.

The only thing we are shown is the decorated cross of the church. After some churches, that becomes a bit dull. So we don’t regret the last church of the eastern series being closed.

We end at Bete Giyorgis, St. George church, built as a cross which can be viewed from the top. With the landscape behind it, it’s a great view.

Shaking shoulders at an Ethiopian dance

Ethiopian dance with shaking shoulders
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We leave the rest of the churches, the western half, for tomorrow. In the afternoon, we have a little party.

Ethiopian dancers sing and dance for us, while we enjoy some sangria. The dance mainly consists of the shaking of shoulders.

It seems easy, but when we are asked to join in, it appears very difficult.

After dinner, we decide to go out. The bars in Lalibela are not much more than a room with bunks on the side and a counter to sell drinks.

In one of them there are a musician and a female dancer, who pulls us on the dance floor one by one.

After the performance, we visit two more bars, and in all of them some dancing is going on. When we go to bed later, our shoulders are still shaking.

More churches on the west side

Bete Gabriel Rufael in Lalibela
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The following morning we visit the churches on the west side of the river. The facades are great again, and we are led through a dark tunnel symbolizing the way to hell.

And hell it is, since I am a bit ill and have to throw up. I have to skip the visits inside the churches, but there was only the showing of the crosses there.

At noon, the tour of the churches is over so I can spend the rest of the day recovering.

The following morning , we break up our camp to move on.

Follow our World Journey!! Next Stop: Ethiopian Highlands

Lalibela certainly is an experience to visit. It is one of those gems you wouldn’t expect in Ethiopia.

There are not many tourists today, since Ethiopia is not an easy country to travel to and in. Great for Adventure Travel, though.

Find out more about Adventure Travel in Ethiopia.