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.
Lalibela is a great little town to visit. Its complex of churches chiselled from pink volcanic rock have been called the "eighth wonder of the world". In addition, the wonderful year-round climate and exhilarating mountain views, combined with some of the finest lodgings outside of the capital, are reason to spend a few days soaking up the fine vistas. Lalibela's relative isolation and small size means you will get to understand more intimately and thoroughly the innate piety and hard lives of the rural poor.
To the north of Lalibela, Dewosach, where much of the decorating and illumination of holy books was done in the time of King Lalibela, rises more than another 1,000 m (3,280 ft) above Lalibela to 3,670 m (12,040 ft) while the much nearer and slightly lower Asheten with its distinctive flat top lies to the east. Asheten means smell in Amharic and this mesa was named during the reign of King Lalibela's nephew, King Neakutoleab, who burned frankincense while building Saint Mary's church on its summit – visiting monks said they found it by following the smell.
This is not to say that everything in the garden is rosy. Like much of the world, women here bear an unfair workload. You may wince when you see little girls of five and six bent double and almost hidden from view by the immense load of firewood on their backs while their elder brothers play outside table tennis. Sanitation and public cleanliness is a bit haphazard so there are more flies here than in Tigray to the north.
To the south of the north-west complex of churches you can still see some older dwellings built in the style peculiar to Lalibela, neat round two storey dwellings built out of stone with conical, thatched roofs, but most other buildings are either wattle and daub structures or improvised buildings with corrugated roofs patched with thatch. There could hardly be more of a contrast with the ancient craftsmanship of the ecclesiastical buildings – which must surely be unique in all the world for having been built from the top down rather than from the ground up.
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 later-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.
Ethiopian Airlines has scheduled flights every day to Lalibela Airport (IATA: LLI). There are direct flights from Axum, Bahir Dar and Gondar (and indirect flights from Addis Ababa), and direct flights to Addis Ababa, Axum and Gondar (but not to Bahir Dar). Flights are often overbooked; make sure you reconfirm your seat at least one day in advance and show up at the airport on time. Flights can be rescheduled or cancelled at short notice because of weather or operational reasons. The airport is mid-sized, which seems over-sized for a small town like Lalibela. It's 27 km from town and at least 30 minutes by shared minibus (70 birr per person as of Dec 2013). The road is asphalted but was poorly constructed and parts are in poor condition.
The roads to the small town of Gashena, south of Lalibela, are asphalted from Bahir Dar and Gondar to the west, and Woldia to the east. From there it is 1-2 hours over a road that is unsealed except for the last part from Lalibela Airport to the town. From Bahir Dar the drive takes about 7-8 hours and from Gondar about 10-11 hours. It is possible to get private drivers in both Bahir Dar and Gondar and would cost about 2,000-4,000 birr depending on negotiations, location and driver. There is also an unsealed road to Lalibela from the north, but even if coming from Axum and Adwa, it is quicker and easier to take the sealed road via Adigrat and Woldia.
There is a daily bus from Addis Ababa. It is a two-day journey with an overnight stop at Dessie. The bus passes through Woldia mid-morning and will pick up passengers from the bus station if it has room. Another bus runs daily from Woldia, leaving at dawn. Both the Woldia and Addis Ababa buses depart Lalibela at 06:00.
It is usually possible to get to/from Bahir Dar by bus in one day by changing buses at Gashena, about one or two bumpy hours from Lalibela depending on traffic and weather. If you are travelling to or from Gondar by bus, you will usually have to spend the night somewhere.
Coming from Axum the most plausible way would take about two nights with stopovers in Mekele and Woldia. However, if you are lucky you might be able to catch a shared taxi in Mekele which brings you along highway 1 to Woldia. The next day you can catch a bus heading towards Bahir Dar with a stop at the Gashena junction to Lalibela where you have to wait for another bus/car to bring you to Lalibela. This might take a few hours.
You may lose a few kilos walking up and down the streets (some cobbled, some dirt) since there are few conventional taxis and Lalibela is pleasantly free of buzzing bajaji engines. You can rent minibuses to drive you around town for about 25 birr per person (minimum 50 birr). Unlike bigger towns and cities in Ethiopia, no blue and white minibuses regularly run through Lalibela.
You can walk safely around town (and people will greet with many wanting to practice their English or offer their services or wares). School children may try to befriend you, and follow you around, perhaps beg. From 2010 onwards the government has tried to forbid begging, and the situation is now much better than before, but many people still beg after a long conversation or invite you to their homes where more successful begging can be done.
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 to be 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 fewer 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 10:00, and what you lose in birdlife is compensated by red, yellow and blue headed lizards scampering over the rough terrain.
The 11 churches are in three clusters, all within easy walking distance of each other:
- 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 14:00-17:00. Admission to all costs US$50 for adults, and USD25 for children aged 9-13 (ticket valid for 5 days). Entry is free for children under 9 and Ethiopians without a foreign passport. 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).
- 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 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, ☎ , 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.
- Public Library, Kedemt Rd (close to the ticket office for the church complexes). A modern, airy building (opened by the United Kingdom's Princess Anne on 9 Oct 2002!) with a small stock of books in Amharic and an even smaller stock (many of them textbooks) in English.
- Ethiopia Cookery School, at Blu Lal Hotel, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Although the women who runs this stayed in France for several years she never learned to cook a crêpe properly. However, she is probably just the person to teach you how to make injera with a fine and tasty wat over an open fire. USD50 for one, USD30 each for two or three.
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.
- Ben Abeba (perhaps 700m uphill from the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia and turn into the same road as the Cliff Edge Hotel), ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. 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).
- John Cafe. Good food and terrific mixed fruit juices. A handy place for refreshments when you've walked back up the hill from the churches.
- 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) (short distance down lane opposite the police station). Tej (honey wine), azmari music and dancing. Don't be put off by the unprepossessing access way – inside it is attractively decorated and has a great atmosphere, with good singers and dancers performing on the floor. The toilets, which are separate, are grotty though.
Lalibela has an extremely high proportion of faranji seeking accommodation, as opposed to locals; consequently budget accommodation is scarce and overpriced.
Many "tourist class" hotels have been built recently but the owners and managers have often never visited Addis Ababa – never mind travelled outside Ethiopia – and seem to suffer the delusion that guests from Europe, Asia and Australasia will not understand prices in birr. Consequently they invariably will quote a laughably high price in US dollars at first.
Prices quoted below are for the low season of June-August and hoteliers will try to extort a much higher price during festivals and other busy times.
Most tourist class lodgings are concentrated in two areas:
- Shimbrima at the north-western end of Adebabay St, many with stunning escarpment views and a gentle climb to the economic centre of town and a steeper descent to the church complexes
- Getergie at the south-western end of town, on and off Getergie Rd and without the stunning escarpment views (but still with fine views of the surrounding buttes and mesas) but still a long way to the bus station on the eastern side of town. Hotels in this district have both a steep climb to the church complexes and then an equally steep climb to the economic centre of town. However, maybe it's better to stagger downhill to your bed after a day's sightseeing?
For those arriving by bus, this very basic hotel may save them both some dosh and a long uphill hike to the town proper:
- Tena Adam Hotel, Werk Dingay or "America" district (behind bus station on the road to Lalibela Airport), ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Probably the only hotel in Lalibela which charges the same price for foreigners and Ethiopians. There is no bargaining even on major holidays. Prices during Christmas and other holidays are the same. Rooms are comfortable with sturdy beds and blankets. The common bathroom is clean and can accommodate many guests at the same time for those using the toilet and cold shower. The owner is Befekadu Sisay. 50 birr, which is less than USD3 (June 2013).
- Top Twelve Hotel, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Family owned and run and it shows in the spotlessly clean bedrooms and common areas and the attention to detail which means that (almost) everything works – a rare treat in Ethiopia! Two stories high with a nice little lawn to enjoy the afternoon coffee ceremony; spectacular views from the twin sunloungers of each private balcony. Shower rooms are up to European standards and each bedroom is beautifully furnished with locally themed and sourced furniture and furnishings but without TV or phone. 200 station satellite TV in the reception/restaurant area. Free Wi-Fi throughout. Car park is guarded 24 hours. 20kW standby generator, laundry service, weekly barbecue. Worth a visit – even if it is full and you can not sleep in one of its 12 en suite rooms – because of two features: A) Its modern Ethiopian renaissance architecture and interior design that ranks amongst the best in the whole country – no chipped marble and faux Louis XIV curlicues here. B) A right up-to-date Polish wall map of Ethiopia and surrounding countries (so modern it even shows the border crossing with the new country of South Sudan) and showing relief and all major features of interest to the traveller such as filling stations and ATMs together with an accompanying wall poster (in English with photographs) listing the major tourist sights and features.
Sgl 690 birr, dbl/twin 890 birr including a cooked breakfast (June 2013), MasterCard & VISA accepted with 5% surcharge.
- Cliff Edge Hotel, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. A nondescript, 3 stories high, modern hotel sharing a spectacular view with the others in this location. 18 en suite rooms without TV or phone or a closet to hang your clothes but satellite TV in the reception area. Free Wi-Fi throughout. Car park for 12 vehicles is guarded 24 hours. No standby generator, laundry service. Dismal restaurant with an even more dismal menu and kitchen. Sgl 800 birr, dbl/twin 1000 birr, triple 1200 birr (June 2013), VISA accepted with 5% surcharge.
- Mountain View Hotel, ☎ , fax: +251 333 361 103. Check-in: noon, check-out: noon. Modern architecture (using local red rhyolitic tuff cladding of volcanic origin) provides great views for each and every small room from their balconies perched one above the other, 3 stories high. 30 cramped rooms with no TV or phone, but satellite TV in the well stocked bar. All bedrooms have a hip bath with a shower above, desk and 2 chairs. No Wi-Fi in the bedrooms but free in the common areas and attractive terrace. Car park for 20 vehicles is guarded 24 hours. 20 kW standby generator, laundry service. Restaurant with the usual unimaginative, boring and misspelt faranji menu of spaghetti carbonara (without bacon!), omelettes, "steaks" (but not as anyone in Argentina would recognise) and French fries. Sgl 1,200 birr, dbl/twin 1,400 birr (June 2013), MasterCard & VISA accepted with 5% surcharge.
- Panoramic View Hotel, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Opened in Sep 2012. 35 en suite rooms without TV or phone or a closet to hang your clothes but satellite TV in the cave-like gloom of the reception area. Perhaps they did not install u-bends in the plumbing, as after using the shower and going off to breakfast, one may come back to a sewer smell in the bathroom. Free Wi-Fi throughout. Car park for 12 vehicles is guarded 24 hours. Brand new bus can carry groups of up to 20 people. Restaurant, laundry service, no standby generator. Sgl 800 birr, dbl/twin 1000 birr, triple 1200 birr includes full breakfast (June 2013), MasterCard & VISA accepted with 5% surcharge.
- Asheten Hotel (take the easterly fork off Adebabay St just south of the Ethiopian Airlines office and then keep right at subsequent junctions - it's a long uphill hike from the bus station). Nice, quiet place with hot showers. From 250 birr (June 2013).
- Seven Olives Hotel. The oldest hotel in Lalibela, founded in 1967 and badly in need of a freshening makeover, this dilapidated property is owned by the diocesan office. Rooms are noisily close, clean, small and dark, with twins, double and triple beds and small en suite ablutions with hot showers. Substantially over-priced at 680 birr for single occupancy, dbl/twin 910 birr, triple 1280 birr. Cash only. However, it has the best hygiene of the central hotels and has a peaceful garden with mature trees and one of the best restaurants in town.
- Helen Hotel. Scruffy, dingy dive closest to the church complexes on the west side of Getergie Rd. Has satellite TV in the dirty bar. Sgl 250 birr, dbl/twin 300 birr, triple 400 birr (June 2013).
- Roha Hotel. 63 small, cramped rooms with a tiny TV and DDI phone currently receiving 2 channels: Ethiopian TV and BBC World News. Well stocked bar. All bedrooms have a wash handbasin in one corner and a separate ablutions with WC and a hip bath with a shower above, desk and chairs. Hot water is provided from a centralised boiler. Wi-Fi in both the bedrooms and the common areas and attractive restaurant seating 73. Large car park for more than 20 vehicles is guarded 24 hours. 80 kW standby generator. Sgl 565 birr, dbl/twin 850 birr, triple 1248 birr, MasterCard & VISA accepted with 5% surcharge (June 2013).
- Tukul Village Lodge, ☎ +251 3333 605 64/5, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Internet and shops across street, a newish place with very nice, spacious "tukul" (round, native style with thatched roofs) and en suite shower rooms with better views from their private balconies than most other hotels in this area. Restaurant and 20kW standby generator. Sgl 900 birr, dbl/twin 1,250 birr, triple 1,700 birr (June 2013).
- Lalibela Hudad Eco-Retreat (Hudad Lodge). Located on a 10 hectare amba (mesa) at an elevation of 3,300 m, several km from Lalibela. There is a road part way there; access the rest of the way is by foot or mule. Accommodation is in tukuls spread out over the amba, each with its separate tukul outhouse. There is no running water. With luck you will spend the evening around a campfire with locals who will sing, dance and give you a traditional leg wash and massage from the knees to the toes. Night temperatures are cool at this elevation, so take extra layers for round the campfire, but there will probably be a sweater provided in your tukul.
Local children might ask you to buy schoolbooks and pens for them. Most are dirt poor so it may be hard to resist.