The Ancient Rock-Carved Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia

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Last Updated on July 19, 2017 by Audrey Scott

The story of the rock-carved churches of Lalibela 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.

St. George, the most famous of Lalibela's Rock Hewn Churches
Saint George Church, the most famous of Lalibela's rock hewn churches carved into the ground.

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.

Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia
Fisheye View Inside Biete Medhane Alem Church – Lalibela, Ethiopia

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.

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.

Worshipers in Lalibela, Ethiopia
Worshipers wait for a blessing at Biete Medhane Alem in Lalibela.

Ethiopia is a land of living history where you can get a glimpse of the past through present-day society and culture. Read more about this fascinating country in Ethiopia: First Impressions and Ethiopian Food: An Overview.

Essential Information for Lalibela and the Rock Hewn Churches

Most tours to Ethiopia include a visit to the rock hewn churches in Lalibela (we went as part of this G Adventures Ethiopia tour), including a guide and entrance fees ($50/person for foreigners). We took around two days to visit the different sites.

If you are traveling independently, you can choose whether to explore on your own or hire a local guide by the ticket office.

Finding a hotel in Lalibela: The town has a wide variety of accommodation options, from inexpensive hostels to more luxurious lodges. We stayed at Lalibela Lodge, which was quite nice and the staff there even put on an impromptu cooking class outside for our group. Compare hotel rates in Lalibela for your visit here.

How to get to Lalibela: We traveled overland as part of our tour, but it is a long journey to get there (e.g., 2 days by bus from Addis Ababa). If you prefer to reduce your time on the roads, consider flying into Lalibela airport on Ethiopian Airlines (compare prices on Skyscanner).

Recommended eating in Lalibela: Seven Olives Restaurant is quite good and we enjoyed the yetsom beyaynetu there. Also recommended is Ben Abeba Restaurant, not only for the food (both western and traditional Ethiopian), but also for its funky architecture and great views. Be sure to check out Torpedo Tejbet at night for a taste of traditional honey wine (tej) and great music and dancing. A fun mix of locals and travelers.

Recommended reading for Ethiopia: Dan and I both really enjoyed the novel Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese that is set mostly in Ethiopia. The story begins during Italian occupation and goes through the revolutionary period into modern Ethiopia.

Recommended travel insurance: Don’t travel through Ethiopia without travel insurance. You never know if you'll end up with some bug or sprain your ankle when climbing around the churches, or your phone gets stolen, or some illness or injury means you need to cancel all or portions of your trip. With all of these scenarios, travel insurance will be there to help you and ensure that you don't end up with a huge bill at the end. We recommend and used for years World Nomads as travel insurance for trips to Ethiopia and other areas in Eastern Africa.

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.
About Audrey Scott
Audrey Scott is a writer, storyteller, speaker and tourism development consultant. She aims to help turn people's fears into curiosity and connection. She harbors an obsession for artichokes and can bake a devastating pan of brownies. You can keep up with her adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about her on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

23 thoughts on “The Ancient Rock-Carved Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia”

  1. Wow! It looks incredible. I’m always amazed by ancient architecture like this and how well crafted things were so long ago.

    • 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 🙂

  2. 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!

    • 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.

  3. 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

    • 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.

  4. 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.

    • 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!

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

    • @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!

  7. 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

    • Talakgeta, these churches are truly remarkable and beautiful. Your country has a truly incredible history and culture.

  8. 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.

    • 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.

  9. 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!

  10. Dear Daniel and Audrey, I hardly have the right words to praise your descriptions and video in the above article !!
    I too love travelling and have visited a few destinations in India, but I’m nowhere near your league !!
    You both are too awesome and mhst be almost walking encyclopedias !!
    Saved your page as a bookmark many months ago, whenever I visit, it’s like getting transported to another world !!
    I pray and hope you will be safe and happy wherever you both go.
    BEST of LUCK.

    • Thank you for your kind comment, Jimmy! We are very fortunate to have been able to visit so many places in this world and experience so much. Not sure if we’re quite walking encyclopedias, but we do have quite a few stories to share:)

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