Lalibela: Churches Everywhere

Lalibela in Ethiopia is home to eleven rock-hewn churches, each carved entirely out of a single block of granite with its roof at ground level. Seeing as I was not going to get as far as Gondar further to the west, it was important for me to enjoy what time I had available at Lalibela. I had long since seen these great churches in pictures and in videos online, so when I finally got the chance to visit Ethiopia for a week at the end of my African sortie, I was chuffed to bits!

A basic Lalibela tourist map from 2014 (click to enlarge)
A basic Lalibela tourist map from 2014 (click to enlarge)

Were it not for these extraordinary churches, Lalibela would almost certainly be well off the tourist radar. A dusty rural town nestled into rolling countryside, and isolated from the rest of the country, Lalibela only recently received electricity. Religious ritual is central to the life of the town, and this is not proven more than the fact that 10% of the town’s residents are qualified priests!

The town was named after its king, King Lalibela, and his goal was to create a new Holy Land. According to some reports, he had been to the Holy Land himself and while inspired by what he saw, he king made no attempt to copy these churches in the Holy Land. Indeed, the architecture of Lalibela could not be more unique.

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The churches of Lalibela were not constructed, they were excavated. Each church was created by first carving out a wide trench on all four sides of the rock, then painstakingly chiseling out the interior. The largest church is 40 feet high, and the labour required to complete such a task with only hammers and chisels is astounding. Popular legend has it that angels came every night to pick up where the workmen had left off. One of the churches, I was told, contains a stone pillar on which King Lalibela wrote the secrets of the construction, but this is covered with old cloth and only priests may look at it, which I thought was a shame. I do wonder, though, if this is just another urban myth.

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The roofs of the Lalibela churches are level with the ground and are reached by stairs descending into narrow trenches. The churches are connected by tunnels and walkways and stretch across sheer drops. It is apparently not usual for tourists to enter these areas, although as part of a tour, we were allowed to venture downwards. It was a great privilege! Getting down and into the churches of Lalibela requires some dexterity, and the steps can be steep and rough.

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Musical drums inside the churches are a common sight!
Musical drums inside the churches are a common sight!

The rock-cut churches are simply but beautifully carved with such features as fragile-looking windows, moldings of various shapes and sizes, and different forms of crosses. Several churches also have wall paintings. I also saw lots of Swastikas, which reminded me of its usage in Nazi Germany. Each church, I was told, has its own resident monk who appears in the doorway in colourful robes. Holding one of the church’s elaborate crosses, these monks are quite happy to pose for pictures, and my tour group got a great photo!

Murals in St. George's
Murals in St. George’s
The interiors of some of the churches are incredible
The interiors of some of the churches are incredible

There are 11 rock-cut churches at Lalibela, the most spectacular of which is Bet Giorgis (St. George’s). Located on the western side of the cluster of churches, it is cut 40 feet down and its roof forms the shape of a Greek cross. It was built after King Lalibela’s death by his widow as a memorial. It is a magnificent culmination of Lalibela’s plans, with its perfect dimensions and geometrical precision.

Across the main road from St. George, the most notable church is Beta Medhane Alem, home to the Lalibela Cross and believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world. Bete Medhane Alem is linked by walkways and tunnels to Beta Maryam (St. Mary’s), possibly the oldest of the churches.

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Of all the sights in Ethiopia, I think the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela may possibly be the most impressive. Some might say that travelling all this way just to see the churches is a bit on the pointless, but isn’t that what travelling is all about?! The beautiful city of Bahir Dar is south of Lalibela, and this is from where I made my journey to see the churches. I woke up literally at the crack of down from my budget hotel to take the bus to Lalibela, and the return journey was made at about 4pm the same day back to Bahir Dar. It is a very long day, but when you are in Ethiopia you cannot miss these amazing churches.

The featured image in this article is courtesy of National Geographic.

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