Lalibela is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Ethiopia’s 'must-see' destination, a mixture of intriguing legends, awe-inspiring architecture and an absorbing history. Its famous rock-hewn churches have been places of pilgrimage for over 800 years and continue to draw both the faithful of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and visitors to marvel at these truly remarkable structures, many of which are still home to worshipping congregations. Beyond just photographing crumbling monuments of a bygone era, visitors can explore these ancient shrines amidst the echo of Eucharistic chants and white-robed priests contemplating the scriptures in the morning sun.
One of the first Europeans to visit the site concluded his account: "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."
Only its relatively remote location and international obscurity keep Lalibela from seeing the same levels of visitors as the pyramids. Access has become much easier in recent years, so it cannot be long before Lalibela becomes a mainstream destination. The next few years may represent a window of opportunity to visit this site with relative ease while still experiencing the warm spirituality of this truly unique place in relative peace.
The site is attributed to King Lalibela (1881 – 1221), who is said to have received a vision in which an angel led him to a city of rock-hewn churches and told him recreate this on earth. An estimated 40,000 workers, the world’s greatest artisans and, according to one account, a team of angels, set to work creating what can legitimately claim to be the 8th wonder of the world.
There are 11 churches in two clusters. Some are quarried out of enlarged caves, whilst others are painstakingly carved out of volcanic rock. One, Bet Medhane Alem, is the largest rock-hewn church on earth covering over 800m² and standing 11½ m tall. Two nights should be long enough to satisfy most people’s desires. For the real enthusiast, the area around Lalibela is punctuated with more churches and monasteries and can be explored by 4X4 or by mule.
A recent upgrade to the airport has made Lalibela accessible year round. Daily flights link it to Addis, Gondar and Axum, allowing it to be integrated into a natural circuit of northern Ethiopia’s historic sites. If you have more time and would prefer the scenic road journey, it is possible to reach Lalibela by 4X4 from Gondar.
Do note that a certain surity of foot is needed for the stairs to some of the churches. We recommend packing a torch for the churches as they're quite dark inside. And take slip-on shoes because footwear is not allowed in Ethiopia's churches.
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