Lalibela, Africa’s ‘New Jerusalem’

When travellers think of Ethiopia they think of Lalibela. Those rock-hewn churches are the iconic images of Ethiopian tourism, but the pictures don’t do it justice. Lalibela is an incredibly moving place.

It’s a very small town high up in the jagged, rocky mountains that characterise much of Ethiopia’s landscape. It’s dusty, dry, poor and is not accessible by any major road from one of the cities. The road from the airport to the town centre is not even sealed and very rough (although this has changed thanks to recent Chinese investment in road infrastructure). It’s a pleasant place and I easily spent a few days there appreciating the quietness compared to the major cities I’d seen.


At the same time, you can’t miss the expensive hotels, fancy restaurants and local guides that charge a fortune for their services; hallmarks of the tourism industry. The 11 churches carved out of rock and dating back to the 13th century explains it all. They were built under King Lalibela who envisioned it being a ‘New Jerusalem’ after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem stopped Christian pilgrims from entering the city.

I happened to have picked a special day to visit the churches, the celebration of St Mary, and I was extremely lucky to have done so. It’s probably one of the few times I could say that I was glad to be viewing an attraction with a crowd of people. The churches were full of locals dressed in their traditional white scarves and chanting and praying. It was truly special to witness and made the experience much more real and interesting.


The churches themselves were even better than I had expected. You could enter into all 11 of them and see their different architecture and carvings. We also used the original underground tunnels that connect the churches to each other. The most amazing thing is how they managed to make these churches using the tools they had at the time; chisel and hammer. Some say they were helped by angels. Either way the feat is incredible.


The day after I visited the churches, I climbed up to the Asheton Monastery on top of the mountain overlooking the town. Other people I talked to had either rode a mule up or taken a tuk tuk, but me and two other guys I met wanted to hike it. We left early to beat the heat and were expecting a two hour climb. On the way we met a young local guy who accompanied us and became our unofficial guide. It was a steep climb but well worth it as the views of Lalibela were amazing. At the monastery, the priest showed off his bible and crosses that were 900 years old and still used for mass.


We were going to head back down but our ‘guide’ said that we could keep going all the way to the top of the mountain which would take another half an hour. It was a tough 30 minutes of rock climbing up the face of the mountain, but I was smiling, this was so dangerous that it was fun! We got to the top and had even better 360 degree views around us. He also showed us a little cave that was apparently King Lalibela’s prayer room. It was very clear that no one really came up this far, it’s amazing sometimes where the day can take you.


By the time we got back we had been gone seven hours. We were extremely tired but all agreed we’d had an excellent day.

Lalibela really was a special place. Whether you’re religious or not, you can’t help but be moved by it. The churches were unlike anything I’ve ever seen and definitely a highlight of my trip so far.


*post adapted from my trip here in February 2015 and from my original blog site

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