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Lalibela is a rural town of 15,000 people in a stunning setting at an elevation of 2,600 m (8,500 ft) in the midst of the Lasta mountains in the eastern highlands of Northern Ethiopia. Its unique and remarkable monolithic churches hewn from living rock, most built more than 900 years ago, are one of Ethiopia's leading attractions and were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.
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Points of Interest in Lalibela
This town is known around the world for its churches hewn from the top down into living rock, most of which were built during the reign of the eponymous Lalibela, king of Ethiopia, when he moved his capital here in the Zagwe period. Contrary to certain spurious myths, they were not built with the help of the Knights Templar; rather, they were produced solely by medieval Ethiopian civilization. However, there is controversy as to when the churches were constructed. Some scholars believe that the churches were built well before Lalibela and that Lalibela simply named them after himself. They were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.
It's a good idea to get up before dawn so that you are at the ticket office when it opens at 06:00. This way you will hear the deep bass rhythms of the church drums and the haunting chants of the priests and congregation at mass. There are also less flies and wanna-be guides pestering you. Ethiopian birds are colourful and more of them are about just after dawn. A great time to visit is on Sunday mornings, when hundreds of people descend on the churches for traditional Ethiopian Orthodox worship. If your alarm clock lets you down, don't fret – looking inside the churches is less intrusive after ten, and what you lose in birdlife is compensated by red, yellow and blue headed lizards scampering over the rough terrain.
The 11 churches are all within easy walking distance, but occur in three clusters:
- The north-western group of 6 churches includes: Bet Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), home to the Lalibela Cross and believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, probably a copy of Saint Mary of Zion in Axum. It is linked to Bet Maryam (St Mary's, possibly the oldest of the churches), Bet Golgotha (known for its arts and said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela), the Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam.
- The north-eastern group of 4 churches includes: Bet Amanuel (possibly the former royal chapel), Bet Merkorios (which may be a former prison), Bet Abba Libanos and Bet Gabriel-Rufael (possibly a former royal palace), linked to a holy bakery.
- Bet Giyorgis (St George's Church), unique in all the world in its cruciform style, is very well preserved and on its own 500 m to the south.
The churches are open 06:00-12:00, and then 14:00-17:00 and admission to all costs US$50 (ticket valid for 5 days) for adults. Ethiopians without a foreign passport and children under 9 enter freely, while for those children aged 9-13 are charged US$25. Licenced guides are available from the tourist office in Lalibela for 200 birr per day. These guides are well trained and have an excellent working knowledge of the churches and good relationships with the priests. Unlicensed guides will approach you all over the village, but they often know very little about the churches and are best avoided.
You need to take your shoes off before entering the churches. As there are numerous churches, you will do this a number of times. You may find it easier to wear slip-on footwear, such as flip-flops. The rock between churches in each cluster, although uneven, has been worn smooth over the centuries, so you might even take a plastic bag to pop your footwear into, and walk barefoot between the churches as many pilgrims do.
Farther afield lie the monasteries of Na’akuto La’ab (4 km south) and Ashetan Maryam, and Yimrehane Kristos church (possibly 11th century, built in the Axumite fashion but within a cave).
Popular events in Lalibela in the near future
Since the town, first called Roha, was founded by the eponymous King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela of the Zagwe dynasty more than 900 years ago as the "new Jerusalem", the more recently renamed Lalibela has been a major ecclesiastical centre of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a place of pilgrimage to its amazing concentration of rock-hewn churches. Pious Ethiopians often walk hundreds of kilometres in bare feet from all over Ethiopia to receive blessings.
Although all the church exteriors and interiors are carved from soft volcanic tufa, their architecture is extremely diverse: some stand as isolated monoliths in deep pits, while others have been cut into the face of a cliff. Establishing a sequence or chronology for a rock-hewn building is much more difficult than for a conventional one, especially when the churches in Lalibela are all in daily use for services. Consequently, there have been long running academic disputes as to both the time period and duration of construction.
The Ethiopian Orthodox tradition unequivocally recognises the huge task represented by the cutting of these churches and their associated trenches, passages and tunnels. It explains the completion of the excavation during the reign of a single saintly king by attributing much of the work to angels who, after the workmen had downed tools for the day, came in on a night shift and worked twice as fast as the human day shift had done. In this way, work proceeded so fast that all the churches are said to have been completed within King Lalibela’s quarter-century rule.
Some argue that the oldest of the rock-hewn features at Lalibela may date to the 7th or 8th centuries CE – about 500 years earlier than the traditional dating. These first monuments were not originally churches, although they were subsequently extended in a different architectural style and converted to ecclesiastical use. Later – perhaps around the 12th or 11th century – the finest and most sophisticated churches were added, carved as three- or five-aisled basilicas and retaining many architectural features derived from those of ancient Aksum, which had flourished some 400–800 years previously. It is the last phase of Lalibela’s development which may, Phillipson believes, be dated to the reign of King Lalibela. The complex of churches was extended and elaborated. Several of the features attributed to this last phase bear names like the Tomb of Adam or the Church of Golgotha, which mirror those of places visited by pilgrims to Jerusalem and its environs. This naming has extended to natural features: the seasonal river which flows though the site is known as Yordanos (Jordan) and a nearby hill is Debra Zeit (Mount of Olives). It seems that it was King Lalibela who gave the place its present complexity and form: a substitute for Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage. It may be significant that early in King Lalibela’s reign the Muslim Salah-ad-Din (Saladin) had captured Jerusalem, and for this reason Ethiopians may have felt excluded from making their traditional pilgrimage to the Holy Land across the Red Sea. Today, a cloth-draped feature in the Church of Golgotha is pointed out as the Tomb of King Lalibela.
- Visit the weekly market on Saturday - not much you would want to buy, some local weaving possibly, but an invaluable insight into local life. Make sure you visit the donkey park.
- Holidays. 7 Jan (in the Gregorian calendar used by most of the world), Ethiopian Christmas or "Ledet"; 19 Jan , Epiphany or "Timkat" are two of the most festive. Lalibela in particular gets packed during these times, so best to plan in advance. September 11 is the Ethiopian New Year, Enkutatash.
- Tesfa Tours offers excellent multi-day hiking programmes along an escarpment in the area south of Lalibela, and also hikes east of Lalibela. You travel with a trained guide and stay overnight in huts in local villages. A percentage of the funds they raise stays in the local communities. The hikes range from 2 to 5 days.
- Kabebush Sisay, Medhane Alem church area (Ask at Tena Adam Clinic - across street from church tour ticket office), ☎ (home) +251 33 3360317; cell phone +251 911 556 205, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Kababush Sisay, age 48, conducts one to two day cultural trekking tours to a rural area called Dugusach. Trekkers get spectacular views of high mountain areas and can participate in cultural events such as holidays, weddings, funerals and wakes while being personal guests of residents eating local food and staying in their grass huts. The price of the tour is 110 birr for the first person and 80 birr for each additional person (which is about USD6.25 and USD4.25 respectively). She is best reached through her brother Befekadu Sisay at the contact info shown above.
- Highland Trekking, office above 7 Olives Hotel, ☎ +251 912 130 831, e-mail: email@example.com. Daily 07:00-18:00. Treks up on the Abune Yosef massif north-east of Lalibela, lasting up to 6 days. Can be done for shorter periods, down to a half day. Multi-day treks have the option of homestays in villages or camping in a tent. Hike the mountains, visit churches and monasteries, and experience life with the villagers. You might get to try milking cows or making injera. The trek operators are known for paying fair wages to their workers and contributing solar lights, seeds, and other useful things to the community.
- Ben Abeba (perhaps 700m uphill from the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia and turn into the same road as the Cliff Edge Hotel), ☎ +251 922 345 122, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. 06:00-21:30. Whimsical looking (Gaudi meets Mad Max) restaurant that was planned by a Scots woman, Susan, and her Ethiopian business partner, Habtamu, and opened in October 2011. It has a gob-smacking location on a little hillock standing on a rock promontory to give in-cre-di-ble 360 degree views and is surrounded by rock gardens and flowers (Ben means hill in Scots Gaelic and Abeba means flowers in Amharic). The menu is one of the most imaginative in Ethiopia (you should try the tuna pate drizzled in lemon juice with tiny home-made oatcakes and their savoury home-made bread is delicious) and reasonably priced. Get up early and go to Ben Abeba for breakfast to see the sun rise over the valleys. This is a terrific spot for watching brightly coloured weaver birds investigating the variegated seed sources in this restaurant's garden and you are on the same level as soaring birds such as Lammergeier, falcons and eagles. 45-95 birr (June 2013).
- The restaurant at the Seven Olives Hotel (listed in the Sleep section below) serves some of the largest and tastiest helpings in Lalibela. Their steak stuffed with rice and vegetables and served with a most delicious Kita made from Aga is delicious and large enough to feed two at less than 110 birr (June 2013). This delightful restaurant set in a mature garden in the commercial centre of town is circular, with a giant 10m diameter weaving forming the ceiling and making you feel like you are under the giant traditional cover of a mittad cooking injera!
- Torpido Tejbet (Askelech). Tej, azmari music and dancing.
There is an ATM at Dashen Bank on the ground floor of the Aman Hotel close to the Ethiopian Airlines office, and another next door at the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia. The Dashen one permits up to 2000 birr in one transaction with multiple daily transactions possible up to your daily card limit. Only Visa is accepted. For other card holders the only option besides having an acquaintance send money via Western Union is to go to the Mountain View Hotel. They will charge MasterCard plus a 10% surcharge and give you birr.
Even in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian "supermarkets" are only glorified "sari sari" shops and the range of goods carried by even the tiniest village shop in the highlands of Scotland would put them to shame. The best stocked place in Lalibela is the "WOW Supermarket" on the west side of the steep Sebat Woyra Road about 200 m before it joins Adebabay Street by the Seven Olives Hotel.
This article is based on Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 3.0 Licensed text from the article Lalibela on Wikivoyage.