The Rock-Hewn Churches Of Lalibela: Ethiopia’s Holy City

lalibela churches holy city

One of Ethiopia’s national wonders is its famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. This is Ethiopia’s own Christian holy city featuring a number of ancient churches carefully carved into the rock of the Northern Ethiopian landscape.

Visiting this UNESCO Heritage site is relatively simple with an Ethiopian eVisa for tourists. Since 2017, the state has permitted visitors to enter the country with an easier-to-acquire Ethiopian eVisa. This is obtained online via a web application form and grants applicants a tourist visa of up to 90 days to visit the country.

Once your eVisa is approved, you’ll be ready to visit Lalibela itself. The following article will provide you with a brief introduction to this heritage-site and how you can make your own pilgrimage to this unmissable Ethiopian destination.

The Location of Lalibela’s Rock-Hewn Churches

Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches are situated in the north of the country in the city named after their constructor, a former Zagwe Dynasty Emperor of Ethiopia. The city is located 645km from Addis Ababa in the North Wollo Zone of the nation’s Amhara region, which sits at approximate 2400m above sea level. It is a rocky and mountainous area that is dry and often prone to droughts and was once the location of the historic capital of Ethiopia.

Lalibela’s Origins

Ethiopia is the African country with the longest history of Christian worship and some of the churches of Lalibela date back to as early as the 7th Century.

The exact records detailing the construction of the churches has unfortunately been lost to time. However, legend states that work was completed on the churches within 23 years, with the help of angelic assistance.

Gebre Mesquel Lalibela, King of Ethiopia, who ruled the land around the 12th and 13th centuries was the driving force behind the project and was inspired to create his own Jerusalem (the site is sometimes known as “New Jerusalem” for this very reason). This was in response to the Muslim conquests of Saladin in the Levant, which had prevented pilgrimages at that time in history.

The Meaning Of “Lalibela”

Gebre Mesquel Lalibela was a medieval Ethiopian emperor. His regal name Gebre Mesquel means “Servant of the Cross”, whereas the meaning of his own name literally means “the bees recognize his sovereignty”. This is based on a mythical telling of his birth when a swarm of bees surrounded him as a newborn. The city of Lalibela was originally called Roha but was renamed to honor its former Emperor.

The Number of Churches at The Site

In total there are 11 monolithic churches dotted around the Lalibela historical site. These are found grouped in 3 separate locations around the area. The complete list of rock-hewn churches found at Lalibela includes:

The Northern Group

  • Biete Maryam
  • Biete Medhane Alem
  • Biete Golgotha Mikael
  • Biete Danagel

The Western Group

  • The Church of Saint George at Lalibela

The Eastern Group

  • Biete Amanuel
  • Biete Abba Libanos
  • Biete Qeddus Mercoreus
  • Biete Lehem
  • Biete Gabriel-Rufael

The Significance of This Holy Site

Unsurprisingly this site has had a large influence on Christianity in Ethiopia and indeed the entire region. The population in this region of the country overwhelmingly identify as Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. For this reason, the site retains its holy status and still remains highly popular with pilgrims in Africa and the world over.

The churches take inspiration from many Christian symbols such as the 12 apostles, the many saints of the faith and the Virgin Mary. Inside Lalibela’s churches, recreations of famous religious artifacts such as the tomb of Adam and the tomb of Jesus can be found. The historic rock-carved churches have at times in history even substituted for holy sites like Jerusalem and Bethlehem for pilgrims, when travel to the holy land was restricted.

Visiting Ethiopia’s Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela

Once you have arrived in Ethiopia you will need to travel to the North of the country to the city of Lalibela. In order to get there, you have several options for transportation available, depending on where you are the country.

Reaching Lalibela by Air

It is possible to take an internal flight from Addis Ababa International airport directly to Lalibela. This flies twice daily and takes approximately 45 minutes to arrive in the city. The airport in Lalibela is located just 23km away from the city center.

Travelling to Lalibela by Bus

There are regular buses from both Addis Ababa and Makele, which both require a change of en-route. However, journey times are long and can take several hours up to a few days. Visitors should also be advised that these routes are known to be particularly busy and poorly maintained, which can cause delays and discomfort.

Driving to Lalibela

There is a direct road covering the nearly 500km from Mekele to Lalibela. This is one of the simplest ways to drive via car or motorbike to the site of the churches. The road from Lalibela to Addis Ababa, on the other hand, covers 650km and has a journey time of around 14 hours.

There are many sights that you shouldn’t miss if visiting this glorious East African nation and the monolithic Churches of Lalibela are certainly one of them. If you wish to travel to Ethiopia to see these magnificent rock-hewn churches for yourself, remember to ensure you meet all the visa requirements and to travel with an authorized eVisa in order to enjoy a smooth arrival.