The Ancient Rock-Carved Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia [360-Degree Panorama]

The story goes: almost 900 years ago in Ethiopia there lived a visionary king named Lalibela.

Lalibela traveled far and wide, including an extended pilgrimage he took to Jerusalem, after which he brought back home to Ethiopia all he’d seen and learned.

When Muslims conquered Jerusalem in the late 12th century and it became too dangerous for devout Ethiopian Christians to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem itself, Lalibela fashioned a work-around: to build a New Jerusalem in his home country.

But this New Jerusalem was no ordinary holy place.

The foundation of Lalibela’s vision was to build churches in the ground. Today, each of his eleven rock-hewn churches stands carved out top-down from a single piece of solid rock — all so that foreign invaders would not see them above ground from afar.

Construction was a remarkable feat of execution. Once the rough shape of the structure was carved away from the rock, work would then begin on carving the church from the outside in.

Remember: all of this engineering took place 900 years ago without the aid of today’s machinery and sophisticated measurement tools. No wonder local legend says that Lalibela claims to have had a vision of the churches — including detailed instruction as to how they ought to be built — directly from God.

Open up the panorama below to see the inside of our favorite Lalibela rock-hewn church, Biete Maryam (House of Mary). Be sure to use the up arrow and check out the engraved arches and ceilings covered in original frescoes.

What makes these churches even more remarkable: they have been used continually, filling with hundreds of people chanting and praying every Sunday for almost 900 years.

Ethiopia is a land of living history where you can get a glimpse of the past through present-day society and culture. We look forward to sharing much more on this fascinating country very soon.

360-Degree Panorama: Biete Maryam, a Lalibela Rock-Hewn Church in Ethiopia

panorama directions

Disclosure: Our tour in Ethiopia is provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

Enjoy this?

Then sign up for more travel wisdom & inspiration from 8+ years of traveling the world.


    • says

      Meggie, it is incredible how they carved and crafted these churches hundreds of years ago without any machinery or power. These are some of the most impressive structures we’ve seen anyway. Just wish we could have included the smell of the incense with this panorama :)

  1. says

    The is so much history of the early church that is unknown in today’s society. Your post is the perfect example. The sad part is that it takes travelling there to uncover such stories. That is until now with travel bloggers. Sharing experiences such as visiting ancient carved churches helps bring forgotten messages to the world. Thank you for sharing!

    • says

      Bryan, one of the goals with this blog is to bring awareness to places and countries that have so much to offer travelers but usually don’t get much attention. Although we had read about these churches before our trip, seeing them in real life exceeded all our expectations. They were remarkable.

  2. says

    Audrey, Lalibela has been on my list for some time…a long time, really. Were you guys able to take a tripod into the churches? As always I love your 360’s! Thanks, Corinne

    • says

      Corinne, we didn’t try to take a tripod into the churches so we don’t know whether there is an additional fee for it (like there is for professional video equipment). We did see another traveler walking around with his tripod so we know it’s possible one way or another.

  3. says

    This is beautiful look on the inside! Thanks for sharing one of many amazing things about my native country, so often misjudged yet one of the most gorgeous places on earth — Ethiopia. Can’t wait to return next year to cover it as well.

    • says

      Lily, very much agree on the beauty of Ethiopia and how so few people actually know about it. The inside of these churches are really impressive when you think that they were all cut out of stone, but this one in particular had a special feeling to it. Enjoy your trip next year!

  4. says

    I really want to visit old churches, like thousand year old, for me it’s very sacred and it’s a fulfillment that you have a chance to visit it. Thanks for sharing this wonderful 360-Degree Panorama: Biete Maryam, a Lalibela Rock-Hewn Church in Ethiopia!

  5. says

    This looks stunning. I have my sites firmly set on Ethiopia for 2015 (what can I say, I plan ahead) and of course as the nation’s most famous site, Lalibela is on the list. Looking forward to reading more of your posts about the country, especially the food, and the Simien Mountains – would be interested to hear how trekkable (is that a word?…) they are for non-hiking folk like me.

    • says

      @Tom: The two treks we did in the Simien Mountains were definitely doable for folks who are not hard-core trekkers. They were each around 3-4 hours and we based ourselves in the Simien Lodge (pricey, but nice). If you decide you want to do a multi-day trek, then that will be more intense and include camping. Another area I’d recommend for nature is the Gheralta Mountains in Tigray – reminded us a bit of Arizona’s red rocks. Some of the climbs are a bit tricky, but manageable as there are guides there to help.

      Oh, and the food was even better than we had imagined. Stay tuned for a thorough write-up on that!

  6. Talakgeta says

    It is one of the marivelos aspect of my blessed land, it seems curved out of mountain and the pillars cut out of the mountain. Tanxs for sharing

  7. addis says

    Audrey! thanks for the explanation.

    Well, for anyone interested generally in classic structures, in Ethiopia, we also have older churches than just a millennium ago. there are marvelous churches even some 7 hundred years older than these in other corners.

    Many of them feature other kinds of architectural mysteries of their time (I admit they may not be as incredible as these in Lalibela). And some others are even converts of Jewish temples from pre-christian times (Ethiopia followed the jewish religion roughly since 1000BC onwards). And one of them is that which houses the ‘Arc of the Covenant’ In Axum Tsion.

    And these even left some features for the Lalibela churches to copy. for example the monkey heads and the wooden beam-imitations at the windows and the wooden laden – you can call these architectural quotations of prior skills in the place.

    That is one. and Two, we have carved-from-rock structures in Tigray, Ethiopia (though not churches, but huuuge stellae) yet, dating as far back as 2nd BC – some 1400 years older than Lalibela. And these huge imitations of multi-story buildings are even made and transported from as far as 7 killometers from where they are erected.

    The unique thing about Ethiopia churches is that the builders cared not only for the rituals that are supposed to go on in there for generations, but they also wanted to send stronger messages and show an Ethiopian brand of lifestyle which is unique. Else where, people built structures, many of them even beyond words … but all of them use the same architectural technique – i.e. putting on and on a series of bricks to form a huge structure. Here, in Lalibela it is the opposite – removing more and more pieces out of a solid granite – a huuuuge one to form a woooowing grand piece, and the angles can’t be made more accurate in modern day.

    • says

      Addis, thank you for your thoughtful comment and providing historical context for the Lalibela churches in that they are part of a progression that spread from the Aksum and Tigray area in the north going further south. We in the Gheralta Mountains and hiked up to Maryam and Daniel Korkor, cave churches believed to be from 4th-6th centuries. Truly amazing structures. And yes, that the structures were built to show Ethiopian culture and style of life is incredible.

      Thank you again for sharing.

  8. Annie Marie Peters says

    Wow! What a fantastic 360 view of Biete Maryam. Thank you for posting this, Audrey. It’s very humbling to realize it was built over 900 years ago!


  1. […] In medieval times, King Lalibela of Ethiopia once envisioned a New Jerusalem where Christians could worship without having to travel all the way to the Holy Land. That these beautiful rock-hewn churches survive today is remarkable. That they have been in continuous use for approximately 900 years is astonishing. Take a 360-degree peek with Uncornered Market. @unmarket […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *