I’d seen pictures of the famous, cryptic, rock-cut churches of Lalibela before. In fact Lalibela was one of the main draw-cards of Ethiopia for me. But I could never really make sense of it. The images I’d seen featured a bunch of holes in the ground, and in each of those holes: a church.
What was the point of that?
Were the church-builders hiding from someone?
Were they escaping the sun?
Were they shy?
It turns out the churches were built in the ground for – and this is the case for many of the world’s most interesting places – no particular reason at all.
In the 12th Century CE King Lalibela of the Zagwe Dynasty, who ruled northern Ethiopia and parts of Eritrea, decided he wanted to build a new Jerusalem. He did this as Saladin, sultan of Egypt and Syria, evictor of the Crusaders, captured old Jerusalem in 1187, which effectively put an end to Christian pilgrimages to the holy city.
King Lalibela wanted his new Jerusalem built, not of the earth, but in the earth. He also wanted it divided into two parts, representing the earthly Jerusalem, and the heavenly Jerusalem. Between the two the River Jordan would flow – represented by a fairly ordinary-looking trench.
His subjects laboured away to make King Lalibela’s dream a reality. Slowly, over the next century or so, eleven churches came into being.
Biete Maryam (House of Mary), Lalibela
Biete Maryam was one of the first churches to be created at Lalibela. It contains crypts said to be replicas of the tombs of Adam and Eve.
If you’re sharp of eye then you’ll have noticed the large shelter constructed over Biete Maryam. It was installed in 2008 by UNESCO to address ongoing erosion and weathering concerns. Similar shelters have been installed over the majority of the churches at Lalibela. It’s a shame UNESCO wasn’t able to come up with a shelter that sat a little more easily in the landscape, but better this than leaving the churches exposed to additional weathering and eventual collapse.
Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), Lalibela
Biete Medhane Alem is said to be the largest monolithic rock-cut church in the world. It houses the Lalibela Cross, a large processional cross, and one of Ethiopia’s most prized religious icons, which dates to the 12th Century.
A network of trenches and tunnels has been chiselled from the soft limestone to allow pilgrims to walk between the churches without needing to reappear at ground level. The trenches are deep, narrow, and treacherous, meaning pilgrims must proceed slowly and in single-file. The tunnels are long and twisted and uneven of step – and there are one or two mid-tunnel descents that need to be made by ladder. No lighting is provided, so remember to bring a torch. Better yet, get a guide to show you around. Trying to guide yourself through the labyrinth of underground passages is all but impossible.
Each rock-cut church is surrounded by dozens of small niches and rooms; many of these are used as tombs and catacombs, and contain the mummified remains of holy men. Other niches are used as storerooms, and hold brooms, buckets, mops, and other useful tools.
Scattered across the site, at ground level, are dozens of small circular stone houses. These are the traditional residential dwellings of northern Ethiopia. They were used for centuries as resting houses for visiting pilgrims. These days they lie empty.
Biete Abba Libenos (House of Abbot Libanos), Lalibela
Biete Abba Libenos is incomplete, its roof never chiselled free of the surrounding bedrock, its ceiling still a part of the earth.
Or maybe this is exactly the way it was meant to be. Church and earth still connected. Still one. A perfect unity.
As nice as it sounds, leaving the church in this state means there is a mountain of weight bearing down on those thin church walls. Huge cracks have already appeared in the walls, as you can see. Unless something is done, it’s only a matter of time before it collapses.
Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), Lalibela
The architecture of Biete Amanuel is unique amongst the churches of Lalibela. The pattern of horizontal banding seen on the church is representative of the Aksum empire (the Aksum empire ruled northern Ethiopia between the 2nd and 10th Century CE). Historians posit that King Lalibela, of the Zagwe Dynasty, used style cues from Aksumite architecture, in this and other of the churches of Lalibela, to link his house to the once-mighty empire.
Biete Giyorges (House of Saint George), Lalibela
Biete Giyorges is affectionately referred to as the 8th Wonder of the World. It’s three stories in height, cruciform in shape – it takes the shape of a Greek cross – and requires no internal pillars. And best of all, due to its superior state of preservation, no unsightly UNESCO shelter is needed to protect it.
It is the pièce de résistance of Lalibela, and the pinnacle of Ethiopian rock-cut architecture.
Lalibela is open to tourists, but by no means is it is a museum. The churches continue to function as religious temples, and are visited each and every day by devout locals and pilgrims alike. Religious processions and ceremonies are held here every other day. Tourists should remember to be on their best behaviour at all times.
Practical information and how to reach Lalibela:
Lalibela has its own airport with daily flights from Addis Ababa. To get a bus from the capital takes 2 whole days. More transport info here.
Read more on the rock-cut churches of Lalibela in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.
More on Ethiopia:
More rock-cut architecture:
or visit my awe-inspiring rock-cut architecture page.