When he was a baby, the future king Lalibela was visited by a swarm of bees, which his mother took as an omen of his greatness. His legacy - eleven monolithic churches chipped from the bedrock - is one of the most astounding achievements of the medieval age, so it looks like Mum had a point.
Legend states that when King Lalibela visited Jerusalem as a youth he had a vision which showed him how he could construct a new Jerusalem in his home country of Ethiopia. When the Muslim crusades began to disrupt safe passage to the Holy Land, his resolve deepened and the incredible rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are the result. 24 years in the making, this is a site of tremendous significance for all of Christianity, but specifically to the Ethiopian Orthodox faith.
Religious festivals are celebrated here with a raw devotion - should you be lucky enough to coincide your visit with an important date in the Christian calendar you will be able to witness first hand the ancient rituals which have been performed almost unchanged in these churches for nearly a thousand years. Scores of tall pilgrims in long white cloaks flock around and inside these evocative buildings, swaying, chanting, singing, praying and kissing the walls. Whether you visit on a high day or at a calmer moment, the magic of Lalibela is that these ancient structures have not been preserved solely for posterity. They are still connected to the life of the faithful today and play an important part in the daily worship of many Ethiopians.
Lalibela, including the rock-hewn churches and the surrounding ancient tukul roundhouses, was one of the initial twelve sites listed by UNESCO in 1978. It really is incredible to think that this was all achieved so long ago with no more than rudimentary hand tools and elbow grease.
The Ethiopian Orthodox faith follows the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian, so if you turn up on 25th December expecting Christmas rituals to be in full swing, you will be disappointed. Christmas Day falls on 7th January. Note also that the churches are closed for around 2 hours every lunchtime for prayers.
Large festivals such as Christmas, Easter and Timkat (epiphany) are incredible spectacles and the town will be thronged with white-robed pilgrims, but a normal Sunday service allows a glimpse of the faithful energy linking present to past in this holy site, without scores of camera-toting tourists at the fringes.
The entrance fee may seem a little steep. US$50 is on the high side, but remember that this includes entry to all the churches, as well as the tunnels and channels between them, which are seriously old and very well-trodden, therefore requiring constant upkeep. This fee allows entry over 5 days, so for an in-depth exploration it is good value, though most visitors can cover the sites with a guide across a couple of days.
Many thousands of souls have stepped carefully along these ancient paths, and through centuries of use some areas have become smooth and slippery underfoot. Other areas have stubbornly resisted all those footfalls and remain rather uneven. Bring a torch for dark passageways and unlit corners of churches, and wear sturdy footwear with a decent grippy sole. Even better if your shoes are easy to take off and worn with thick socks - footwear must be removed to enter the churches and the ground can be unforgiving to bare feet.
The churches are split into two separate sites. Spread your visit across two mornings to maintain the unique identity of each church - you could fit them all into a day but they may start to blur together in your memory. Two separate visits also feels less pressured: you will have time to linger over your preferred highlights should you wish, and you can avoid the afternoon heat.
If you are visiting as part of a group or you feel a steadying hand may be of use as you navigate the steps and slopes, consider paying a small fee for a shoe-minder, who will take care of your shoes while you are inside the churches, and accompany you through the complex.
Hire a guide. Local insight and personal stories will bring so much life to the structures.
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If you’d like to find out more about all that this intriguing destination has to offer, pop your details into our enquiry form and our local experts will do the rest. For more information about Ethiopia, see our destination overview. To talk to someone in the TravelLocal office, call 0117 342 7898.