Lalibela Rock Churches in Ethiopia

A vacation is a vacation. You see the attractions, you swim, and you fish. What if you could take a vacation that changed you? What if you took a vacation that meant something? Many people come away from the Lalibela rock churches in Ethiopia feeling just like that.

Lalibela is little more than its rock churches but for so many that is plenty. It is considered a holy place and the monasteries still carry the tales. The streets are unpaved and there are little to no motorized vehicles. There are no gas stations or supermarkets inside the center of the city.The population is a scant 9000 people and over 1000 of them are priests. The churches, the priests, and the religious festivals circulate the biblical atmosphere.

The environment breeds religious epiphany and life changing thoughts. The simplistic life of the area brings a certain peace and inner tranquility.

The area, once called Roha, was named after King Lalibela of the 12th century. King Lalibela was a shrewd politician and a beloved prophet. His reign was threatened and he sought the protection of the influential Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Lalibela Ethiopia rock churches

During the time he was seeking the acceptance and protection of the church he claims to have had a dream where God called him to Heaven. While there he witnessed great churches and upon awakening he commissioned the creation of specific stone chiseling tools. He set to work explaining to his builders exactly what he saw and set them to excavating it.

The churches were chiseled from the living rock base of the mountains that spotted the area. The King hoped to win the churches approval with the unique rock churches but he also sought to make a religious mecca comparable to Jerusalem. People were required to make a trip to the holy land of Jerusalem once in their life. Lalibela hoped to make a New Jerusalem, not to take the place of the holy land but to aid those who could not make the lengthy trip.

When you think of a rock church there is no way you would imagine these churches. They are completely carved from rock and stone. The inside has intricate designs over the arches, walls and windows. There are 11 of these rock churches and the largest is 40 feet high. The intricate designs are still visible and much of the original markings are near pristine.

The work involved and how it got done is mystifying. Similar to the Egyptian pyramids, it is a mystery. Local legend has it that each night when the workers would sleep angels would come and take over the process. One of the churches contains a stone pillar with writing from the King explaining the secrets of the churches excavation. It stays covered with cloths. No one is permitted to look at it but the priests.

The King dedicated 20 years of his life to the churches. After which he reported a religious epiphany and abdicated his throne. He chose to live his life as a hermit He spent the rest of his days in self introspection, eating roots and vegetables. Because of this life change and the fact that his stone churches became such a place of religious importance, he is considered a saint to this day.

While the area is mostly undisturbed and rustic, there are still a few places to stay and eat while you are visiting. The surrounding areas house the hotels where you are able to hire a guide for your visit to the churches if you desire. The guides will take you through each of the churches and explain their heritage, history and significance.

Lalibela rock churches in Ethiopia
Photo by Marc Veraart

The Lalibela World Cultural Center is near the Tukul Village Hotel. It serves as a protective agency for the preservation of the churches but also as a educational center for the tourists. Performances like circuses and theater acts are staged throughout the year to help both tourists and natives understand other cultures than their own. Eventually, they center plans to ass a library for local students.

There is a sizeable museum located near the main entrance to some of the churches. It is filled with ancient manuscripts, vested gold thousands of years old, crosses, crowns, pendants and paintings all gathered to ensure the stories of the people and King Lalibela survive.

Dining in Lalibela is an interesting experience. The local eateries serve traditional foods indigenous to the area along with an Ethiopian honey-wine called Tej. Most of the restaurants have in-house dancers and entertainment. There is a coffee making ceremony significant to the area that performers often call patrons on stage to help with, adding a special touch to the evening.

This place, the churches and the people, have a special effect on people. It’s unexpected and benevolent and well worth the trip. You may think you’re going for the history and significance but you may have a higher calling.