Welcome to Lalibela

Introduction

From historical sites to cultural attractions, Lalibela is more than just the home of its world-renowned rock-hewn churches.

Nestled into the Roha Mountain, there is a strong biblical feel as one enters Lalibela. 800km north of Ethiopia’s capital, Lalibela represents an incredible period in Ethiopian history. One will witness the remnants of King Lalibela’s attempts at recreating Jerusalem in Ethiopia, saving worshipers from a long pilgrimage. This manifests in Lalibela’s 11 rock-hewn churches.

For a truly riveting and memorable experience, visit Lalibela during Ethiopian Christmas, which falls on January 7th, or during the three-day celebration of Timkat (Ethiopian Epiphany), starting on January 19th. Pilgrims and priests adorned in traditional white robes flood the scene. 

Rainy season is from June to August, although wild flowers will be in full bloom. Mid-October through January marks Lalibela’s high season. No matter what time of year, remember to bring layers to protect against the chilly evenings. 

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Rock-hewn Churches

You can’t hurry through history, so pace your visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site over at least two days, split between the churches on either side of Ethiopia’s Jordan River. It is advisable to show some respect, not to be too loud, and not to wear revealing clothing.

On the Southeast side of the river, there are five churches...

Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel) 

Biete Amanuel is one of the most finely carved rock hewn churches. It is believed that it was the royal family’s private chapel and perfectly emulates the style of Aksumite buildings, with its projecting and recessed walls. The highlight of the interior is the double Aksumite frieze atop the nave.

Inside the church, there’s a beautiful staircase to an upper gallery, although access is currently restricted. In the southwest corner of the church, a since-closed passage descends underground connecting to the Biete Merkorios church. 

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Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of Saint Mercoreos)

Connected by a labyrinth of narrow, unlit tunnels from nearby Biete Gabriel-Rufael, this church may be hiding a darker history. Historians believe this may have been Lalibela’s prison due to clues from ankle shackles and other leftover artifacts.

Even though the interior of the Biete Qeddus Mercoreus is a fraction of its former self, the interior is adorned with a beautiful fresco of the Three Wise Men. They look delightful with their little flipper hands and eyes that look dubious. Down below, a later fresco depicts the 12 apostles. There are also Passion of Christ paintings depicted on a cotton fabric next to the frescoes, dating back to the 16th century. 

Legend has it, the 35m pitch-black tunnel that connects this church to the Biete Gabriel-Rufael is said to mimic hell. Local tradition challenges you to traverse it without any use of light.  

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Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos)

Located in the eastern part of the complex, Biete Abba Libanos is a rectangular church with carvings on every side. It is linked to the Biete Lehem. 

Biete Lehem is an underground, free-standing and monolith church which was created during the Kingdom of Axum. The name, “Biete Lehem” is derived from the Hebrew word “Bethlehem”, meaning “House of Holy Bread”. 

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Biete Gabriel Raphael (House of Gabriel Raphael)

The church here is located at eastern part of the compound and is believed that this underground monolith rock-cut church was a former royal palace and is linked to Biete Lehem.

On the other side of the river, the Northwest cluster comprises seven churches:

Biete-Gabriel-Raphael-Lalibela

Biete Meskel (House of the Cross) and Biete Denagel (House of Virgins)

Biete Meskel is carved into the northern wall of Beite Maryam. It has four pillars which divides the interior gallery into two aisles spanned by arcades.

Biete Denagel is the smallest of the 11 grotto churches, it is only partially carved with a facade facing the north wall of the Biete Maryam courtyard. It is the most roughed-up hewn of the Lalibela churches.

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Biete Golgotha and Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael)

Known for containing some of the best early examples of Ethiopian Christian art, including some amazing carvings of the 12 apostles, the interconnected churches of Biete Golgotha and Biete Mikael form the most mysterious complex in Lalibela. It is believed that its holiest shrine – the Selassie Chapel – and the tomb of King Lalibela himself is housed here. An amazing array of processional crosses can be found here, including on particularly alluring cross which may have belonged to Lalibela himself. 

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Biete Medhani Alem (House of the Savior of the World) 

Situated in the north, it may be Lalibela’s oldest. With 28 massive columns supporting the roof, it resembles a Greek temple. Polished by centuries of pressure from countless feet, the stone floor reflects shades of light from apertures in the walls high above. Symbolical graves said to have been dug for biblical patriarchs Abraham, Issac, and Jacob.

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Biete Mariam (House of Mary)

Biete Mariam is a small but an exceptionally designed and decorated church that is connected to Biete Medhani Alem by a tunnel; it is unique for its porches. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Biete Mariam is the second most popular church out of the 11 rock-hewn churches, especially among pilgrims and is believed to be built first in Lalibela.

Do not miss the Ethiopian Christmas celebrations here on the 7th of January, it is a joy to see!

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Biete Giyorgis (House of Saint George)

We have saved the best for last.

Representing the apex of the rock-hewn tradition, the Biete Giyorgis is a wonderful site to behold. Standing at 15-meter-high with three-tiered plinth in the shape of a cross – it is the most visually perfect church of the hewn churches. Expertly preserved, you won’t see the artificial roofing present at the others.

Despite an impressive architecture, the church’s inside is quite humble but screams beauty in simplicity. Light streams in and dances off of the ceiling’s crosses and magnificent dome. Its interior measures 12m by 12m, with a height of 13m and has got a vibrant atmosphere – especially when visited at dawn. 

Mummified corpses have been found in the walls of the church; and be sure to note the exquisite 16th-century canvas depicting St George slaying the dragon. 

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Brilliant Says

Other things to do

Most people visit Lalibela to visit the rock-hewn churches, but if you have the time it’s well worth taking a day to explore some of the other attractions around town.

Na’akuto La’ab Monastery

First on our list is the Na’akuto La’ab Monastery, located just 7km from Lalibela. We recommend visiting this site in the afternoon as it is one of the best sites to witness sunset.

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Yemrehanna Kristos

Yemrehanna Kristos is a natural cave church 42km from Lalibela. It is believed to be one of the oldest in the area and a spectacular sight as it has been built, as opposed to mined from the rock. A visit here can be combined with a trip to four of the other major churches in the area as a part of a full day trip.

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Ashetan Maryam

Situated at over 3,000m above sea level, you’ll find Ashetan Maryam, which in our opinion is worth visiting just for the views alone. Getting here involves a 5-hour hike so make sure you are wearing your comfy shoes!  

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Places to Stay

Lalibela Lodge

Set in the heart of Lalibela, Lalibela Lodge is a serene oasis with spectacular views of the valley. It is located a ten-minute drive from the main town and is well known for having hosted President George W. Bush some years ago.

It consists of a small dining area, adjoining bar and 16 rooms, all of whom come with their own private balcony. They are south facing to allow you take full advantage of the magnificent mountain scenery. The look and feel of the place is basic but comfortable. It is cozy and offers a warm welcome.

The food at the restaurant has a wide range of both Western and Ethiopian cuisine and is delicious and accommodating.

Lalibela-Lodge

Maribela Hotel

Named after the Amharic word for Lalibela, the Maribela Hotel sits in a great location with fantastic views. While very much built as a “tourist hotel”, the Maribela is not without a measure of style. The hotel has 20 rooms, all having a private balcony with day-beds from which to enjoy the panoramic mountain views. The rooms come with single, double or twin beds, mostly four-posters with attractive traditional engravings and are wide and spacious. 

The hotel has a dining area and terrace with charming ambiance and spectacular views. Restaurant service is usually friendly. The dinner buffet is pleasant and usually has an array of Ethiopian and Italian dishes. Put simply, if you want to feel the real Ethiopian way, do not hesitate to take this reservation.

Maribela-Hotel

The Mountain View

The Mountain View Hotel is arguably the best and definitely the most scenic accommodation option in town given its proximity to the Lasta Mountains. Built by two former guides, Getachew and Metaso, who received a miraculous business loan from a generous tourist, Mountain View affords a landscape that can be viewed in all directions. The rooms come with single, double and twin-bedded option, each room having an en-suite with a shower over a bath and are comfortable, functional and clean. Staff is helpful and friendly, particularly the well-known Jamaican head chef who gives very personal service and checks with everyone at every meal that they are happy with the food. The price of food and beverage is reasonable by Ethiopian standards.

mountain-view-hotel

The Tukul Village

Opened in 2007, Tukul village is a fantastic hotel that is located just a 10-15-minute walk downhill from most of the major churches of Lalibela. It is made up of well-lit, two-story red sandstone huts with thatched rooves. The compound is modest, and the traditional furnishings and décor are nicely deployed, the bathrooms are large, and the location is nice and central. 

The food is basic but first-rate. They usually serve “ambasha” bread for breakfast and it is just delicious. The lack of evening meals in the hotel makes it an ideal choice for those that are keen to explore further afield for supper.

tukul-village

Ghion Roha Hotel

The Ghion Roha Hotel has 4 suites, 60 twin bedrooms, a restaurant and a bar. It is close to the town center, meeting basic Western standards. It also has a beautiful garden and a swimming pool that is rarely used, which is strange considering Lalibela’s arid climate.

The buffet breakfast is filling, and the evening restaurant offers a wide range of menus. The friendly staff, although admittedly not lightning quick, are always helpful.

Roha-hotel

Eating and Drinking

Ben Abeba

A personal favourite of ours, the stunning Ben Abeba restaurant is an absolute must in Lalibela. Dining on the raised platforms that overlook the rolling hills of Lalibela is the perfect way to start (or end) any experience of the town. 

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Unique Restaurant

Managed by the overly enthusiastic owner Sisaynesh, Unique Restaurant is arguably one of the best place to get a bite in Lalibela. It serves the usual mix of national and foreign dishes at a fair price.

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Torpido Tej House

If you are looking to indulge in some fine Tej (Ethiopian style honey mead) along with traditional “azmari” song and dance, then Torpido Tej House is what you are looking for. It usually gets a lot of tourists, but locals usually outnumber them. Everyone is expected to dance here, so make sure you have your dancing shoes on!

If you are overindulged and can’t make it home, there are a few but noisy guest rooms upstairs.

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XO Lalibela

No views but a classier dining area than most, sounds like XO Lalibela. Here you can expect a fresh modern menu that does have some Ethiopian dishes, but it put most of its attention into its roast chicken, burgers, fajitas, and paninis. 

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Whatever your budget, group size, length of stay, preferred activity or appetite for adventure, we can help.

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