Bet Merkorios

Church in Lalibela
Image by Sean Caffrey / Getty Images

Reached via a series of trenches and tunnels (one is long, narrow and pitch-black) that starts from Bet Gabriel-Rufael, this church may have started as something altogether different. The discovery of ankle shackles among other objects has led scholars to believe it may have served as the town’s prison, or house of justice.

Due to a large section collapsing, the interior is a fraction of its former size and the brick walls are an unfortunate necessity. Don’t miss the beautiful fresco (maybe 15th century), sometimes said to represent the Three Wise Men, though since they’re holding crosses, this can’t be correct. With their little flipper hands and eyes that look askance, they’re delightful. The 12 apostles are represented below in a less attractive and probably later fresco. The Passion of the Christ painting on cotton fabric next to the frescoes probably dates from the 16th century. Formerly, such paintings were plastered to the church walls with a mixture of straw, ox blood and mud.

The 35m pitch-black tunnel to the church as you come from Bet Gabriel-Rufael is said to represent hell and, according to local tradition, should be walked without any light – mind your head!