Worshippers going to church on Sunday morning in Lalibela

The World Heritage Site of Lalibela was definitely a highlight of our recent trip around Ethiopia.  Religious or not, I defy anyone not to be moved by the splendour of the buildings and the evidence of Christianity in its most raw and powerful form. The only other place where I have felt something similar was Jerusalem, when I spent several months there as a teenager.

A lady reading bible verses outside Bet Medhane Alem church


Priests in Lalibela


Our guide, Shambles

The churches found in Lalibela are believed to date from around the time of King Lalibela (1181 – 1221).  True believers, of whom our guide, Shambles, was an example, say that all the work was completed in 23 years and this was possible because every night the earthly workforce was replaced by a team of angels who achieved far more than mere mortals could have!  However, the churches are so different from each other in style and state of preservation that experts maintain that they span a much longer period than even Lalibela’s reign.

Lalibela’s churches are unique because they were all built below ground level, literally freed from the rock that contained them.  The carving, both inside and out, is exceptionally refined.  Since gaining World Heritage status, some of the churches have been protected with roofing, but this didn’t detract from our enjoyment of the site.  All of the churches are still used by locals and our visit, on a Sunday, was enhanced by seeing everyone praying and paying their respects.
As well as our guide, we were also accompanied by our ‘shoe guard’. For about £10, he stayed with us all day and looked after our shoes as we entered each church.  In some cases, we walked, barefoot, from one church to another, but, whenever it was appropriate or necessary to put our shoes back on, our ‘shoe guard’ was there.  Our shoes were all lined up neatly and, after the first church, he knew exactly which pair belonged to which person!  I was glad I’d followed the advice given by our guide the day before to wear shoes which were easy to take on and off!


Bet Medhane Alem Church


Hermit hole in the wall of Bet Medhane Alem church
A priest giving blessings inside Bet Medhane


We visited the north-western group of churches first, beginning with Bet Medhane Alem, the largest rock-hewn church in the world.  It resembles a massive Greek temple rather than a traditional Ethiopian church.  It measures 33.5m by 23.5m and is 11.5m high.  The building is surrounded by 34 large columns, many of which are replicas of the originals.  In the walls, there are several man-sized holes where hermits spend months at a time, hoping to earn their entry to heaven. The impressive interior has a barrel-vaulted nave and four aisles with 38 columns supporting the gabled roof.
Bet Maryam church

Next, we went to Bet Maryam church, which is connected to Bet Medhane Alem by a tunnel. This church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and many believe that it was the first church built by Lalibela.  In the courtyard, there is a chapel, Bet Danaghel (House of Virgins), said to have been built to the memory of the maiden nuns martyred on the orders of the 4th century Roman emperor, Julian. The murals inside are stunningly beautiful.  

Bet Danaghel church


Mural in Bet Danaghel


From there, we went in the tiny chapel, Bet Meskel and then on to the churches of Bet Golgotha and Bet Mikael, where it is claimed you can see some amazing life-size depictions of the 12 apostles carved into the walls’ niches.  I can’t confirm this as women aren’t allowed to enter!

After stopping for coffee, our final church of the morning was Bet Giyorgis or St. George’s, Lalibela’s masterpiece.  It is the most visually perfect church of all – the first glimpse you get of its roof, in the shape of a Greek cross, is truly breathtaking.  The fact that it isn’t covered with a protective canopy, as most of the other churches are, makes it even more special.

St George’s Church


St. George’s Church


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