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Hewn From the Living Rock: The Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia

When planning our visit to Ethiopia it was Lalibela’s rock churches that were top of the ‘must-see’ list. Lalibela is located in northern Ethiopia and you can fly direct from Addis Ababa, although we had spent some time exploring Gonder and the wonderful Simien mountains beforehand, so flew in from Gonder.

The town is named after the late-12th and early-13th century King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela of the Zagwe Dynasty, who was highly revered and was reputed to have commissioned the construction of the churches, but it is more likely that they were built over several centuries. Although the devout claim that holy angels played a part as well.

The churches, which were designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978, date from the 7th to the 13th centuries. They are remarkable because rather than being constructed from the ground up, they have been hewn from within the rock, using basic tools such as chisels and hammers, and were built from the top down and then carved from within. There are three main groups: northern, eastern and western. It will take more than a day to explore them thoroughly so make sure you factor in enough time. You need to purchase a ticket at the main office – this is valid for five days. It’s not cheap but is definitely worth the price. You need to make sure that you keep your ticket as you may need to produce it when you enter each church. It’s generally okay to take photos (keep an eye out for signs indicating if photography is prohibited) but if you are taking photos of someone (and we found that many of the priests encouraged us to do so) it is polite to tip them. We also recommend getting a guide as they will be able to tell you the history of each of the churches as well as point out some of the more interesting features. The churches are open from 8am-5.30pm, but are closed for two hours at lunchtime, around midday.

These are very much living churches, highly revered by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and a place for pilgrims to visit. We were welcome to join the services.

We explored each cluster of churches in turn. The churches within each group are linked by subterranean passages.

The Northern Group

Biete Medhane Alem, believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, at approx 33 metres long, 23 metres wide, and 10 metres deep, is home to the Lalibela Cross. It has five aisles and its name means ‘Saviour of the World’.

Biete Maryam may be the oldest of the churches, named for Mary.

It has an incredibly deep pool outside which is believed to grant fertility to any woman who bathes in it.

Biete Golgotha Mikael is said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela himself.

Eastern Group

It is thought that some The Eastern Group may have been used as royal chapels or palaces.

Biete Amanuel (House of Immanuel), possibly the former royal chapel.

At Biete Abba Libanos you can see how the church was carved downwards from inside the rock.

Biete Lehem is the house of bread.

The Western Group

Last, but by no means least, Biete Ghiorgis, the church of St George, which takes a cruciform shape, and is the most beautiful of the churches.

You cannot see it on your approach, so well is it hidden. (Actually you have to be careful not to fall into the courtyard.)

It also appears to be totally inaccessible but there is a passageway carved into the rock behind the church and you walk through a tunnel to arrive at the main entrance.

While you’re in the area, it’s also possible to visit Yemrehanna Kristos which is located around 20km from Lalibela. This would make for a pleasant morning or afternoon trip.

The church here is built inside a large cave on Mount Abuna Yosef. The church is named for Ethiopian king Yemrehana Krestos who reigned in the 11th Century.

The area is known for its honey. There is a legend that Gebre Mesqel Lalibela was surrounded by a swarm of bees shortly after his birth. Apparently his mother believed it to be a sign of his future greatness. Whether the legend is true or not, make sure you get to taste the local honey, it is absolutely delicious.

And if you want a tip for a good restaurant at the end of the day’s sightseeing you can’t go wrong with Ben Abeba. The building has a highly unusual design and you can either sit indoors or outside – we recommend the latter as there are some splendid views, especially if you time your visit for sunset. The food on offer is slightly unusual – of course, you can have Ethiopian food, but somewhat surprisingly there are a number of Scottish dishes on the menu! The restaurant is run by a very friendly Scots lady who now lives in Lalibela.  

You can explore the Lalibela churches online via The Zamani Project who can offer several digital tours, including maps, photos, panoramas and 3D models of the site.

Teff Luck – Ethiopian Injera

Ethiopia is a country we had long wanted to visit. When we visited Armenia in the late 1990s a number of people we met were travelling there because they seemed – to us youngsters – to have visited everywhere else. On a trip to the beautiful Armenian rock-hewn Geghard Monastery a couple told us about the underground churches of Lalibela and in that moment Ethiopia was added to the To-Visit list. We made the journey a few years ago, travelling with a local company. The country had so much more to offer than its star attraction.

Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile where you can see a variety of wildlife and, of course, the amazing Blue Nile waterfall.

In the Simien mountains you can walk among wild gelada monkeys in fields scented of wild thyme, a magical experience.

Gondar has Fasilides castle, home of Ethiopian emperors from centuries past.

Axum, where towering stelae (1700 year old obelisks) can be seen.

And, of course, Lalibela, where the rock churches are as spectacular as we were promised many years before.

Something that intrigued us before we arrived was Ethiopian food: we had absolutely no idea about what to expect. A quick internet search revealed ‘injera’. We still had no idea what to expect. Injera is a flatbread that looks like a cross between a dirty dishcloth and a sponge.

It really doesn’t look enticing at all. This was about as attractive as it got.

Actually, it tastes really good. It has soft texture and a slightly sour flavour. It is made from teff, apparently the world’s latest superfood – a grain that is highly nutritious. Injera is made using a fermenting process rather like sourdough or dosas. A combination of teff flour and water are combined to make a batter which takes a few days to ferment. When the mixture is bubbly and smells sour it is ready. It can be fried on a skillet (on one side only) until the characteristic bubbles appear in the surface.

It is often served laid out flat with stew (wat) or with meat and vegetables placed on top – you can pull off chunks of the injera to scoop up the stew. So it serves as plate, cutlery and delicious food. The local people we met were quite surprised that we were willing to eat injera and liked spicy food.

In the UK the county of Yorkshire is renowned for providing large portions of food. Ethiopian portions are so enormous that we quickly discovered that one meal between the two of us was more than enough to fill us up. We generally only needed to eat brekkie, then we shared all other meals.