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.
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.
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. 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.