Eleven churches were hewn into the red rocks of Lalibela at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries. At that time, Lalibela was the centre of power and civilisation in Ethiopia. There were four important priest kings reigning from Lalibela, or Roha, as it was called at that time, and King Lalibela was the most important of them. Roha was renamed Lalibela in the 14th century at the time, when King Lalibela was canonized.
The eleven rock hewn churches of Lalibela are located in two groups and the most famous one, St. Georg Church separately, but close to them. It is possible to visit all the churches on one day, but most people prefer to divide their visit to two days.
The first group of the churches was originally planned to be visited starting at the gate known as Adam’s grave. Adam’s grave is of big symbolic significance in the Orthodox Church – most Ethiopian hand crosses have this symbol at the foot of the long arm. Nowadays, the tour of the first group is usually started at the opposite end by visiting first the Church of Medhane Alem (The Saviour of the World). This is the largest of the Lalibela churches and the famous Lalibela cross – once stolen but miraculously returned back – is kept here.
The next church, Bet Maryam (St. Mary) is the most decorated one. Secrets surround the cloth covered pillar inside it. Bete Maryam is also the center of Lalibela’s famous Christmas celebrations. On Christmas Eve, priests and deacons chant all through the night and at dawn, Christmas will be greeted by lighting a sea of candles.
The most mysterious of the churches in this group is the next one: the double church of St. Michael and Golgotha. Everybody may enter the Church of St. Michael, whereas only men are allowed to enter the Church of Golgotha and to see its exceptional statues. At the end of Church of Golgotha is the Selassie (Trinity) Chapel that only highest priests may enter.
St. Georg Church, located separately but close to the first group, has the shape of a Greek cross with equal length arms. You have probably seen a photo of this church already before coming to Lalibela. You will reach the church through a narrow trench and if you look carefully, you may spot the hoof prints of St. George’s horse along the way! Pilgrims have loved the church so much that some of them have remained here until the end of their days and beyond – a couple of mummies rest even today in one of the holes in the surrounding wall.
The second group is filled with more mysteries. Its inspiration was in the Bible’s Book of Revelations, and it is said to represents the New Jerusalem. According to some theories, all buildings in this group may not have been built originally as churches. There are many narrow trenches and dark tunnels to explore, and many more legends to hear. One of the churches, Bet Emmanuel is often regarded as architecturally the most beautiful of them all. It has striped wall showing the traditional Aksumite style and tradition.
Take your time to dive into the mysteries of these ancient churches hewn into the red rocks of Lalibela. You can hire a knowledgeable guide through us and/or buy a guide book.
When to come?
Ethiopia enjoys an exceptionally high number of sunny days. Sunshine and clear blue skies prevail from mid September until February. Sunshine and blue skies are to expect also from February until June but then some occasional showers are possible. The main rainy season is from mid June to mid September. Rains can be heavy, but they do not need to stop you from visiting and enjoying your stay in Lalibela. Nature thrives during this period and everything will be lush and green. The rain often comes during the afternoon, so there will be opportunities for visiting the sights without getting wet.
The nights, are cool at this altitude, so it is advisable to take some warm clothes along. The nights are particularly cool in November and December, and during the rainy season from mid June to early September.
Weekends are particularly good time for visiting Lalibela as Saturday is the main market day and on Sunday morning people will be attending services in the churches showing the true living spirit of Lalibela. Early in the morning, before the sun rises, people dressed in white fill the streets of Lalibela and head towards the churches.
The most important annual celebrations in Lalibela are Christmas on January 6 – 7, Timket or Epiphany on January 18 – 19, and Easter in April. During these festivals, it will be very busy in Lalibela, and early advance bookings are strongly recommended. Attending these celebrations is a unique opportunity to see how pilgrims from around the whole country gather in Lalibela and how they together with local people celebrate in traditional manner. Christmas and Epiphany are popular times for weddings bringing extra happy atmosphere to the festivals. Visiting the churches may be difficult during the busy festivals, so it is a good idea to come one or two days before the actual celebration to explore the churches in peace and quiet.
September is another month of important celebrations. Ethiopia has its own calendar and the new year starts on September 11. A couple of weeks later, on September 25, Meskel, the finding of the true cross is celebrated by burning bonfires. The country will be very green with many flowers in September after the rainy season.
There are many smaller celebrations at the churches throughout the year. Even if you cannot come during any of the main festivals, you still have many opportunities to experience ancient traditions and rituals in the churches at other times.
Watch this video to see views of the streets and markets in Lalibela around Christmas time (January 7).