Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s most holy places. Named after King Lalibela, this town contains some of the world’s most impressive churches. After Saladin captured Jerusalem, Lalibela built these churches. One group represents earthly Jerusalem, and the other represents heavenly Jerusalem.
One of the first Europeans to see the churches, a Portuguese priest named Francisco Alvares, wrote in the 16th century “I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more … I swear by God, in Whose power I am, that all I have written is the truth”
There are 11 churches in Lalibela. All have great significance and symbolism. They are all within a short walk of each other, and most are connected by underground tunnels as well. All are carved out of rock into the ground. Some are free-standing, some have one side connected to rock, and some are carved directly into the rock from one side.
The churches are all Ethiopian Orthodox and priests are always inside praying. I visited during a heavy tourist time, but I was shocked by how few tourists were actually there. The price of admission is $50, which goes directly to the church. I visited on a Wednesday, but visits over the weekend are guaranteed to see many Ethiopian pilgrims as well as local weddings taking place in the churches.
The most famous of the 11 churches is St. George’s Church. Carved out of a single piece of rock into the shape of a Coptic cross, it is truly a sight to behold. I was told that the yellowish color on the church was moss. This was the last of the churches to be built, and though it’s very small inside, I found it the most impressive.
We happened to be present when some chanting was taking place. It was all in Amharic, so I didn’t understand anything. But the kind of chanting that the priests did was very different from what I’ve heard in Catholic churches in Latin America or Georgian Orthodox churches in Georgia.
Without further delay, below are some pictures from Lalibela. Though it’s a pain to get to by land (requiring two days there and two days back by bus from the capital Addis Ababa), it’s truly a site you have to take in with your own eyes. I hope you all will get the chance to do so someday!