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Lalibela has been a must-visit on my Ethiopia itinerary. I did not mind foregoing many other places due to slow travel, but Lalibela could not be avoided. The monolithic churches have intrigued for many years, ever since, I saw their pictures on a travel magazine and to be in Ethiopia and not visit Lalibela seemed like a travel sacrilege to me. Needless to say, my expectations from this unique destination were very high and I was so eager not to miss visiting the place, that I booked an expensive Addis Ababa to Lalibela return flight for a quick overnight trip. My Ethiopia tour was coming to an end and my flight back to Cairo was on the same evening of my return trip from Lalibela. Thus, Lalibela happened: squeezed in a tight time frame, with a very hectic itinerary, and as luck would have it, during the wrong time. There was some kind of festival happening at the time of my visit and Lalibela was overfilled with pilgrims from all over the country. They came in hordes: in buses, cars, vans, trucks, on horses, and on foot. In fact, it was such a major festival that pilgrims walked for days to reach Lalibela and the drive from the airport to the holy town was slowed down due to heavy pedestrian traffic.Lalibela pinkish sandstone church

Lalibela during festivals

We are talking about a high altitude mountainous region of Ethiopia where the population is not very high and sometimes goats outnumber humans on the road. On that day, however, the mountains were full of people and Lalibela was crowded, chaotic, and littered badly. Prices of hotels, transportation, food, etc. skyrocketed with a mean grab-all-you-can attitude, and the massive surge of people in the little mountain town left masses of trash everywhere. Dust rose in a suffocating manner and it was only at the churches that some semblance of peace seemed to exist. At all other places, there were literal parties going on – with local music blasting from loudspeakers, people squatting and camping everywhere, cooking utensils scattered all over the place, and people shopping for religious paraphernalia at pop-up street markets. I have to confess, that it reminded me of my good old India, where at religious sites, during festivals, the same kind of mindboggling chaos reigns supreme.

Crowds at Lalibela

Crowds at Lalibela

A Unesco World Heritage Site

But, you know, to be honest, I did not travel all the way to Ethiopia to experience the same religious frenzy I would see at home and I longed for some quiet moments at the impressive churches of Lalibela. Though the quiet moments did not happen, Lalibela impressed me with its sublime heritage and historical importance. The small Ethiopian m0untain town is history and mystery frozen in stone. Its heart beats with spirituality and its soul is full of ancient rites of one of the oldest religions in the world: Christianity. No matter how crowded it is, how many photos you have seen of it, and how much you have read about it, nothing prepares you for Lalibela; its simplicity, its clean structures, and the palpable power of faith felt in the depths of the breathtaking rock-hewn churches. Lalibela is a Unesco World Heritage Site and in retrospect, I feel the throng of pilgrims only defined its importance in the world of religion.

Lalibela church circuit

Lalibela church circuit

The history of Lalibela

As you walk through the complex of rock-cut churches of Lalibela, you often wonder at the mind of its creator and the visions he had that made him commission this impressive project. Was he an egomaniac or was he so wholly submitted to the faith of his choice that the only way to prove his reverence was to dedicate this incredible complex? At the time of his commission, did he even imagine the immortality he would achieve through them, or was immortality exactly what he was looking for? Today’s Lalibela town is a quiet rural place tucked away in the bosom of Ethiopian highlands. The place is so remote that it is not directly connected with the country’s capital by long-distance public transportation. Yet, in the thirteenth century, Lalibela was the capital of the mighty Zagwe dynasty. One of the last Zagwe rulers, King Lalibela (after whom the place is named) embarked on an ambitious project to build a Holy Land in Ethiopia. Historians believe that the king was inspired to build the rock-hewn churches after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Believers, however, claim that he was instructed by angels during a poison induced sleep. Whatever the reason was, the monolithic, semi-monolithic, and cave ‘buildings’ of Lalibela are one of the most impressive sights in Ethiopia. Would I revisit? Definitely yes, though the next time, I will plan on a longer stay and choose a quieter season.

Lalibela priest

Lalibela priest

Lalibela Travel Guide

One of the loveliest holy sites in the world, Lalibela is a must-visit destination in Ethiopia. Located in northern Ethiopia, it is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

How to Reach

  • By Domestic Flight – Ethiopian Airlines has one flight a day from the capital Addis Ababa to Lalibela. The flight takes 55 minutes and costs around $US210 for a round trip. Flights to Lalibela are also available to and from Bahir Dar, Aksum, and Gondar. You get a discount if your international flight to Ethiopia is by Ethiopian Airlines.
  • By Bus – The bus journey between Addis Ababa and Lalibela is quite exhausting. Long distances buses leave from Meskel Square in Addis. On the first leg of the journey, you take a coach to the town of Dessie (price was 310 birr). Buses leave at 4 am and it is a 9-hour journey. From Dessie, you have to change buses for Woldia from where you get a direct shuttle to Lalibela. Travelling from anywhere else in Ethiopia by public transport to Lalibela involves getting to Woldia first and then transferring to a minibus for the arduous three-hour drive to Lalibela. The roads are broken in most parts.

Getting Around

Lalibela is pretty walkable, though be prepared for uphill walks. Alternatively, tuktuks (known as Bajaj in Ethiopia) are available. Bargain before getting in.

Best Time to Visit

The weather condition in Lalibela is warm and temperate. The best time to visit Lalibela is from November to April since the rainy season (July to August) brings soaring temperatures and humid conditions. Travelling during the shoulder months (March, April, May, June, September, and October) makes a lot of sense since the prices are low, though you may experience occasional short bursts of rain. Lalibela churches are busiest during the following festivals: Gena, the Ethiopian Christmas (falls on 7th January), Timkat (the Orthodox equivalent of epiphany falls on 19th January), and Meskel (Holy cross day on 27th September).

How to visit the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela

  • Opening Times – Daily from 8 am to 12 noon and 2 pm to 5.30 pm.
  • Entrance Fees – The ticket includes entry to all eleven of Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches. Adult (age 14+) – $US50. Child (age 9 – 13) – $US25, Child (under 9) – free

Lalibela complex has three clusters of churches. Everybody has to pass through the entrance ticket office. Each of Lalibela’s churches is unique and they were created first by carving a wide trench on all four sides of the rock. The interiors and exteriors were then painstakingly handcrafted. There are a total number of 11 rock churches in Lalibela. Some of them are monolithic, while a few semi-monolithic, and the rest are carved into the rocks. One day is enough to cover all 11 churches but for the best experience, a two-day visit is recommended.

  • The Northwestern Cluster
  • The Southeastern Cluster
  • Saint George’s Church (which stands apart from other clusters)

The usual tourist route starts from the main entrance at the biggest church, Biete Medhane Alem, and ends at St. George’s church.

The Northwestern Cluster of Lalibela churches

The five churches in the Northwestern cluster are grouped along the northern bank of River Jordan. These churches have the most stunning and impressive artistic designs. They are attached to the ticket office and linked to each other.

  • Biete Medhane Alami (House of the Savior of the World) – This is the largest and artistically the most impressive church.
  • Biete Mariam (House of St. Mary) – The Church of St. Mary is said to be one of the most popular amongst pilgrims.
  • Biete Maskal (House of the Holy Cross) 
  • Biete Denagel (House of the Virgins)
  • Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha) – This church is highly regarded as one of Lalibela’s holiest sites. It is said to be the final resting place of King Lalibela – who many consider a Saint.

The Southeastern Cluster of Lalibela churches

This set is located close to the first sets. They are grouped south of River Jordan. This group has more intricate exteriors and structural variations. They are connected by a maze of tunnels and trenches.

  • Biete Gabriel Raphael (House of Gabriel and Raphael) 
  • Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of Mercoreus)
  • Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel) – This monolithic church has a perfectly carved exterior complete with blind windows that represents Noah’s Ark. It symbolizes ‘Heaven’ and said to be the chapel of the royal family.
  • Biete Abba Libanos (House of Libanos) – It is unique because it’s the only grotto church in Lalibela.
  • Biete Lehem (House of Holy Bread) 
  • Biete Ghiorgis (House of Saint George) – Biete Ghiorgis is the most beautiful and famous churches in Lalibela. This monolithic edifice was the last church built in the area. The church is famous for its perfect cross shape, which can be seen from the elevated ground. It’s the only church that stands apart from the northern and southern clusters.

Lalibela Scams and Travel Tips

Lalibela is riddled with quite a few travel scams. The most annoying one is the dual pricing. Foreigners have to shell out more than twice than any local. Then there is the Bible scam. Locals come and invite you for tea at their place which later turns into a selling tactic. The local kids are also known to hound the tourists for pens, candies, etc. The best time for photography is early in the morning between 6-7 am especially for St. George’s church. The afternoon period gets crowded. Photography is allowed everywhere, including inside the churches. The use of drone is strictly not allowed.

Lalibela Itinerary

  • Start early and visit Bet Medhane Alami, Bet Mariam, Bet Maskel, Bet Denagel, Bet Mikael & Bet Golgotha (entry not permitted for women).
  • From 12 – 2 pm, the churches are closed, so head for lunch at 7 Olives Hotel).
  • After lunch, continue to the southeastern cluster of churches of Bet Gabriel-Raphael, Bet Mercoreus, Bet Amanuel, and Bet Abba Libanos.
  • Finally, stop at the most famous of all the churches –Bet Giyorgis (St George), constructed in honour of the patron Saint George.

Follow the rest of the Ethiopia series here