Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches, all built below ground level, aren’t just carved into the rock but freed from it. And the carving, both inside and out, is exceptionally refined. Although time has treated most with gentle gloves, Unesco has built protective roofing. Fortunately, despite the intrusive design, this won’t detract much from your enjoyment.
There are two main church clusters around the town, and it will take you the best part of a day to visit them all. There are also some wonderful churches and monasteries outside of town that can be explored on day trips.
Northwestern Group of Churches
This group contains seven of Lalibela’s 12 churches. From a size perspective, as well as the quality of the interior art, this group is easily the most impressive.
Southeastern Group of Churches
Although smaller in size than the northwestern group, the southeastern cluster offers Lalibela’s most finely carved exteriors. After visiting the final church (most likely Bet Abba Libanos), climb up to Mt Tabor, from where most of Lalibela's churches are visible.
Visiting Lalibela's Churches
The ticket office lies at the northwestern group (which makes the southeastern group less busy in the morning). Tickets are valid for five days and can be paid in either US dollars or the Birr equivalent; the exchange rate used to calculate the latter is the official bank rate.
Some people rush through in a half-day, but this simply isn’t enough time. A second day allows proper appreciation. A 6am visit to see the locals in private worship can be enchanting, although you won't be allowed into the churches themselves in most cases. Many of the priests are more than happy to show off their church’s treasures and pose obligingly beside them for photos. Since they get a cut of the entry fee, it’s not necessary to tip for this and the whole Lalibela experience is refreshingly free of people asking for money at every turn. Note that camera flashes inside churches cause great damage to the paintings, so please resist using one.
Bringing a torch can be a good idea.
Local licensed guides are best arranged at the ticket office. One guide who we warmly recommend is Zenebe Minale.
Although visiting without a guide is possible (getting lost in the warren of tunnels and trenches is quite memorable), we consider it a false economy as you’ll miss out on many of the amazing subtleties each church has to offer. The guides also know many good photo viewpoints.
Guide fees are divided into two different categories:
- A guide to all of Lalibela's 12 churches costs Birr500 for groups of one to five, Birr800 for six to 10 people, and Birr1000 for larger groups. These are usually covered in one full day.
- Guides charge Birr500 for each of the churches outside the town.
Day Trips: Churches & Monasteries
Many fascinating churches and monasteries lie in the stunning countryside within a day’s striking distance of Lalibela. They vary greatly in style, design and age and offer a different experience from the churches in town. Tucked away and still absent from most modern maps, many require a guide to find them. The journey, whether by foot, mule or vehicle, to these sites is rewarding. If you didn't arrive in Lalibela with a 4WD and driver, ask your hotel or guide about renting one.
Yemrehanna Kristos Despite Yemrehanna Kristos being one of Ethiopia’s best-preserved late-Aksumite buildings, few people reward themselves with a visit. And a reward it is. The church is different because it’s built rather than excavated. Seeing the stepped exterior facade, created from alternating wood and stone layers, you’ll understand why so many of Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches look like they do. And knowing that Yemrehanna Kristos may predate Lalibela’s churches by up to 80 years, you have before you a virtual blueprint of greatness.
Incredibly, the whole church sits on a foundation of carefully laid olive-wood panels, which ‘float’ it perfectly above the marshy ground below. The carving and decoration are exceptional, especially the cruciform windows and the elaborate nave ceiling. Behind the church lies a pile of mummified bodies: some are those of pilgrims who’ve come here to die over the centuries; others are said to be those of the workmen.
This entirely inspiring and slightly spooky complex sits within a cave roofed by basalt lava flows. The ugly brick wall at the front was built in 1985 to improve the church’s security.
The church is about 1½ hours (45km) north of Lalibela by 4WD. It can easily be visited along with Arbatu Ensessa, Bilbila Giyorgis and Bilbila Chirkos. It’s also possible to get here by foot or mule. Both options take about five hours to cover the shorter 20km distance. The climb up to the church through a forest of juniper trees alive with vervet monkeys takes around 20 minutes.
If you're in the area on 10 October (19 October in the Ethiopian calendar), the site throngs with pilgrims and is an unforgettable experience.
Arbatu Ensessa On the way to Yemrehanna Kristos, around 35km from Lalibela, is this three-quarter monolith church in a wild, overgrown but rather beautiful setting. It’s thought to have been built by King Kaleb in AD 518. Arbatu ensessa means ‘the four beasts’ after the four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It’s five minutes’ walk from the road.
Bilbila Giyorgis Lying west of Arbatu Ensessa, around 32km from Lalibela, Bilbila Giyorgis is also attributed to King Kaleb. It resembles Bet Abba Libanos in design. According to tradition, five swarms of bees took up residence shortly after the church was completed. They still reside here and their sacred honey is said to have curative properties, particularly for psychological disorders and skin problems. The priest will let you taste it. It’s 20 to 30 minutes’ walk up the hill from the road.
Bilbila Chirkos Also near Arbatu Ensessa, 41km off the Yemrehanna Kristos road, this is an interesting three-quarter monolith known particularly for its ancient frescoes. Also attributed to King Kaleb, it’s thought to date from AD 523. It’s a three-minute walk from the road.
Ashetan Maryam Set at 3150m, atop Abune Yosef mountain, is this monastery where the local priests believe they’re ‘closer to heaven and God’ here, and it’s easy to see why. The monastery’s construction is believed to span Lalibela’s and Na’akuto La’ab’s reign, although local tradition claims it as King Lalibela's first attempt at church construction. Although the architecture here compares pretty poorly with Lalibela, it’s the extraordinary mountain scenery for which you really come. The five-hour climb (one way) from Lalibela is quite steep; it's a 30-minute climb from the car park.
Church treasures include parchment and some icons. The most important local festival here takes place on 12 September.
Na’akuto La‘ab Lying 7km from Lalibela, just off the airport road, this is a simple but attractive church (apart from the outer security wall). It’s attributed to King Lalibela’s successor and shelters in a natural cave. It was almost certainly the site of a much older shrine and Empress Zewditu built the inner red-brick building. Some very old stone receptacles collect the precious holy water that drips from the cave roof.
The church boasts various treasures said to have belonged to its founder, including crosses, crowns, gold-painted drums and an illuminated Bible.
Geneta Maryam Thought to have been built around 1270 by Yekuno Amlak, who restored the Solomonic line. With its rectangular shape and 20 massive rectangular pillars that support it, Geneta Maryam resembles Lalibela’s Bet Medhane Alem. It’s also known for its remarkable 13th-century paintings, though most are very faded. There’s a moon-shaped face of Christ on the western wall. Whoever built the hideous protective roof over it should be ashamed. It’s about five hours by foot from Lalibela, or 1½ hours by vehicle.
Mekina Medane Alem Two to three hours’ walk from Geneta Maryam and six hours’ walk from Lalibela, this remote church was, according to Ethiopian tradition, constructed by three virgins during the reign of King Gebre Meskel in AD 537. The church is constructed under an overhanging rock in a natural cave. It rather resembles Yemrehanna Kristos in design and many features are Aksumite, but its beautiful frescoes, some of hunting scenes with one-eyed lions, are the main attraction. There are also many bricked-up tombs in the church.