BEST TIMES TO VISIT:
19 October in the Ethiopian calendar (Yemrehanna Kristos)
Christmas celebrations here on 7 January (Bet Maryam)
WHY TRAVELLERS LOVE IT:
The 11 monolithic rock-hewn churches
- World Heritage Site
- Bet Giyorgis (St George’s Church)
- Yemrehanna Kristos (Church)
- Bet Maryam (Church)
- Bet Medhane Alem (Church)
- Bet Amanuel (Church)
- Ashetan Maryam (Monastery)
- Mekina Medane Alem (Church)
- Bet Merkorios (Church)
- Bet Gabriel-Rufael (Church)
- Bet Golgotha & Bet Mikael (Church)
- Lalibela Cultural Center (Museum)
One of the many World Heritage Sites throughout Ethiopia, Lalibela is a treasure trove of early Christian significance. As one of the most traveled sites of pilgrimage in the world, the many famous churches carved into rock are not the only attractions in Lalibela; the town is also quite picturesque.
There is an abundance of sights to see. A good guide and plenty of time to explore are highly recommended. Generally, both locals and priests are very accommodating to tourists, but as a general rule, ensure you avoid flash photography inside the churches to avoid damaging the ancient paintings.
History of Lalibela
Once known as Roha, capital of the Zagwe dynasty of the 12th and 13th centuries, Lalibela was founded by King Lalibela during his reign. While the origins and craftsmanship of the buildings in Lalibela are still debated, there is no question that they are impressive and numerous. Scholars believe that the King intended to make the city into the pilgrimage destination it is today, and safer to travel to than old Jerusalem.
Bey Merkorious is but another church with a curious history, having likely served a different historical purpose. The discovery of certain objects has led scholars to believe that it was once a jail-like space. The frescoes and paintings within are worth the visit, though there is obvious rebuilding happening due to the collapse of the roof.
This church lies outside of Lalibela proper, but is just over an hour away and worth the visit. The Aksumite influence is very easy to see and with the excellent preservation of the church, it is a popular destination.
The entire complex sits within a basalt cave, and the carvings and art on the inside are intricate and memorable. Unlike many of the churches in Lalibela, this one is built instead of hewn from the rock. Once inside, the difference is striking. The wood of its construction extends beyond the walls: the entire foundation sits on panels that float on the swampy ground of its construction site.
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Bet Giyorgis (St George’s Church)
Bet Giyorgis is one of the most popular destinations in Lalibela, and it is easy to see why. This marvel is a masterpiece of the stone-hewn technique: a 15m high Greek cross. The carved windows and arches allow light into the interior, illuminating the treasures within. The structure is so well preserved that it is easy to imagine it in its original state.
Bet Medhane Alem
This church is the largest of the rock-hewn buildings in Lalibela, and an impressive sight. The outer pillars that surround the 34m by 24m church add to its majesty. The columns on the interior frame the relics within, most notably the 7kg solid gold Lalibela Cross.
Bet Maryam is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and one of three churches off the courtyard connected by an underground tunnel to Bet Medhane. As such, it is easily the most popular with those on pilgrimage, as Mary is particularly venerated throughout Ethiopia. Inside the church, there are many beautiful and colorful paintings, cravings and early frescos. Keep an eye out for depictions one of Ethiopia’s favorite saints, Saint George.
Bet Golgotha & Bet Mikael
Connected off the same courtyard as Bet Maryam, these twin churches are also known as Bet Debre Sina. While women are forbidden to enter Bet Golgotha, both locations have some of the best early Christian art, including full-size depictions of the Apostles. Deeper into Bet Golgotha is the Selassie Chapel, said to be the final resting place of King Lalibela himself.
The layout and floor plan of this twin-church leads experts to believe that it has not always been a place of worship. The leading theory suggests that it was a fortified palace, perhaps for nobles or other members of the court. The interiors of the churches are not as exciting or colorful as some of the others, and visitors may find the most interesting features of the location, beyond its strange layout, to be the outside facade.