Our Ethiopia expert's guide to the unique rock Churches of Lalibela and Hawzien
02 Jul 2020
29 Jan 2021
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Visiting the world-famous rock churches of Lalibela is often the highlight of an Ethiopia holiday, but with so many churches, it can be confusing so we’ve created this complete guide to the churches.
Lalibela’s Rock Churches
The early history of Lalibela as a settlement is somewhat unclear, although evidence suggests it has inhabiated as early as the 7th Century. For many hundreds of years it was a prominent town, without being overly distinctive. Change came to bear in the early 1180s when the reign of Gebre Meskel Lalibela commenced, which was to last for some 40 years. There is much conjecture as to the life of King Lalibela, although the name translates loosely to “for whom the bees have foretold greatness” a legacy of him reputedly being shrouded by a swarm of bees as a young baby. What is in little doubt is the incredible legacy he left to the world, a collection of 13 rock churches, dug out from the red sandstone that surrounds what is now the town. These fully functional churches, complete with pews, entrances, passages to link them and drainage ditches are recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site and are a marvel of engineering and human endurance, as well being undoubtedly the most important religious site anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
There are two “clusters” of churches, with style varying from free-standing monoliths, three-quarter monoliths and those carved directly in to the cliff face. Furthest to the South there is also the monolith of Beit Giyorgis, arguably the most impressive of all the churches. We are going to briefly explain each of the churches, their style and significance within the reign of King Lalibela.
Tours will generally include a full day exploring the churches in on go, although this can be split across two days for those looking to take their time and have a more in-depth exploration of them.
The Northern Cluster
Beit Medhane Alem – Generally the first of the churches explored as it is at the Eastern edge of the cluster by the ticket office, Beit Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World) sits within a large courtyard and, at 11 metres high, is said to be the largest rock-hewn monolith in the world. Relatively plain on the inside, the structure is supported by 36 pillars, both inside and out, and has a distinctly Greek feel to it.
Beit Maryam – A low but short passage takes visitors through to Beit Maryam, the first of the churches built at Lalibela as a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Indeed, it remains one of the most popular of the churches with Pilgrims to this day and is home to a significant number of important artefacts, including carvings of the Star of David and Lalibela Cross. There is a large amount of intricate artwork adorning the ceiling, including a frieze of two horsemen fighting a dragon over the main entrance.
Beit Meskel – At just 35m² this is one of the smallest of Lalibela’s sites and is regarded as a chapel as opposed to a church. It is carved in to the Northern wall of the courtyard housing Beit Maryam.
Beit Danagel – Another tiny chapel, this time carved in to the Southern wall of the Beit Maryam courtyard, constructed in honour of the 50 Nuns who were murdered in the 4th Century at the hands of the Roman ruler Julian the Apostate.
Beit Mikael & Beit Golgotha – A pair of churches found at the Western end of the Northern Cluster, the semi-monolithic Mikael and Golgotha share a common entrance but seem to have functioned as two separate entities since their construction. They are incredibly atmospheric, if a little dank in feel with some very important artworks, including the relief of 7 life-sized saints in Beit Golgotha. It should be noted, Golgotha is the one church in Lalibela which it is not permissible for Women to enter). Of particular importance if the Selassie Chapel within Golgotha where King Lalibela is reputedly buried, making it one of the most historically and religiously important of the churches.
The Southern Cluster
Beit Gebriel-Rafael – Accessed by crossing a sometimes-filled moat by way of a rickety wooden bridge, Beit Gebriel-Rafael is one of the most imposing and impressive of the churches at Lalibela and the first church visited when exploring the Southern Cluster. Despite the impressive façade it is rather plain inside, although rumours abound a second set if subterranean rooms can be accessed via a secret passage, indeed, a secret so well guarded not even the priests can remember it’s whereabouts. Evidence exists that the construction of the church may have pre-dated the reign of Lalibela, possibly as far back as the 7th or 8th Century and the decline of the Axumite Empire.
Beit Abba Libanos – Carved in to cave at the Southern wall of the Southern Cluster, the roof of Abba Libanos is connected to the original rock, but there is a passageway surrounding it to make it almost completely freestanding. The legend states that upon the death of King Lalibela his wife, Meskel Kibre had the church built in the course of one night with the divine intervention of a group of angels. A tunnel leads off Abba Libanos for some 50 metres to allow visitors to access the chapel of Beit Leham, which was used a space for private prayers by King Lalibela.
Beit Emanuel – Widely regarded as the only true monolith within the Southern Cluster itself, Beit Emanuel stands at 12 metres high and is arguably the most beautiful and precise of all Lalibela’s churches. This can be attributed to its role as the private church of the Royal Family and the rock-hewn interior is augmented by wooden panelling.
Beit Mercurious – The final church within the Southern Cluster, Mercurious is a true cave church on the South-Eastern wall and one which way have had alternative original uses, possibly as a prison cell. The artwork is impressive, although is badly faded in many areas so it does require some interpretation when gazing up at the friezes.
The only standalone church within Lalibela itself, Beit Giyorgis is the most photographed of the churches and a true icon of Lalibela. Found to the South-West of the Southern Cluster, the church is distinctive for three reasons, namely its imposing size, true monolith status and the symmetry that it offers. At 15 metres high (or deep depending on your viewpoint) it is the tallest of the monoliths and when viewed from above is a perfect representation of the cross of St George. Despite the external grandeur, it is relatively simply decorated inside, but this should in no way take anything away from what an impressive sight it is from the outside.
Away from the town itself there are a number of churches that can be visited, the most prominent of which is Yemerehanna Kristos, found in the mountains outside of the town at an altitude of 2,700 metres. Dating back to the early 11th Century, it is a classically Axumite-era church, constructed of white granite and wood, layered together to create (as described by Philip Briggs in the Bradt Guide) as “give it the appearance of a gigantic layered chocolate cream cake”. The interior is ornately decorated with plenty of wood and old artefacts, with a door at the rear leading to a cavern housing the bones of over 10,500 Christian Pilgrims who made the journey to die here, some from as far afield as Syria and Jerusalem, the latter highlighting what important sites both Ethiopia and Lalibela in particular are within Christianity. Access here ranges between relatively easy and fiendishly difficult, either a short drive from Lalibela and a 15-minute walk up a steep path or by a 10-12 hour round trip by mule from Lalibela – we can arrange both depending on your preference.
The Cave Churches of Gheralta and Hawzien
Less well known than their rock-hewn counterparts in Lalibela to the South, the cave churches of the Gheralta and Hawzien region are found amongst some of the most spectacular scenery that Ethiopia has to offer. Practically speaking, the region can be accessed by flying in to Mekelle and then taking a short drive to one of the area’s excellent lodges or by driving in from Axum. Hardier travellers can also get to and from this area by vehicle from Lalibela, although it is a full day’s driving to do this. There are 9 principal churches that are visited here, with all requiring a varying degree of fitness to reach, as well as a head for heights, as some of the churches are found on cliff edges with climbing and scrambling required to reach them.
Abuna Yemata Guh
Undoubtedly the most spectacularly located rock church anywhere in Ethiopia, Abuna Yemata Guh is carved in to a rock face looking out towards Megab. The interiors are as spectacular as the location, with a beautiful painting of the Twelve Apostles, along with nine Syrian monks depicted on the ceiling. Although this is one of the smaller churches that you can visit, its unique location and incredible interiors make this a true icon of the region and a must-visit for those who can make the journey there. A word of warning on this, it is one of the most difficult churches anywhere in Ethiopia to access, requiring a 1-hour hike followed by a climb up a cliff face via hand and foot holes to reach the church. A head for heights and the ability to climb is a must here, not somewhere to try and reach if you aren’t comfortable with both!
Abuna Gebre Mikael
One of the less-visited churches of the region, Abuna Gebre Mikael is reputed to have been carved in the 4th Century, although more recent studies have amended this somewhat to the 14th Century – quite a change! Accessed via an ornate wooden doorway, a rarity in Ethiopian churches, the interior is supported by 8 carved columns and is widely regarded as the finest of the region’s churches. Access is via a walk of approximately 90 minutes up a steep slope from the village of Koraro and some final scrambling across rocks, so a degree of fitness and agility is required, although nowhere near the same degree as Abuna Yemata Guh.
Debre Maryam Korkor
Found on a plateau on the top of a 2,840 metre mountain, Debre Maryam Korkor is readily noticeable from its bright green façade, a controversial recent change. Inside 12 imposing columns support 7 stylish ceiling arches and there is some beautiful artwork dating back to the 17th Century. The church is accessed via a 1 hour walk through a natural rock passage (watch out for loose rocks as you walk) which leads to the final 2 “routes” to access the church. The “Men’s” route involves a climb using handholds up a steep slope to reach the church, whilst the “Woman’s” route is a longer, but gentler route to reach the church. Visits here will also include the chance to see an abandoned Nunnery and another abandoned rock church – Abba Daniel Korkor.
Nestled at the base of a mountain escarpment and partially hidden from view by palm trees, the cave church of Papaseti Maryam is renowned for its range of cloth paintings which vividly depict scenes from both the Old and New Testaments and date back to the 19th Century. One of the easier churches to access, we recommend this to visitors who cannot reach the more remote churches as it is just a 20 minute gentle walk from the road.
A small church found, somewhat unusually, within the compound of a modern church bearing the same name, Dugem Selassie is easy to access and a worthy addition to any addition to a visit to the area. Its size, along with features that experts feel resemble the tomb of King Kaleb in Axum have led to a conclusion that Dugem Selassie could have been carved as an Axumite era tomb.
Abuna Abraham Debre Tsion
Widely regarded as one of the most spectacular churches in the region, Abuna Abraham Debre Tsion is carved in to the rock face overlooking the village of Dugen. Boasting the biggest floorspace of any Tigrayan church and a spectacular domed roof decorated with Old Testament figures there is also a small prayer cell at the rear where Abuna Abraham, the monk who carved the church, is reputed to have prayed. Dating back to the 14th Century, the church is home to some important artefacts, not least a 15th Century ceremonial fan. The walk to the church takes approximately 1 hour, 20 minutes through the fields and the 40 minutes hiking up the mountainside, so very doable and requiring no head for heights.
Often visited in conjunction with Debre Tsion (they are just 2kms apart as the crow flies) Yohannes Maikudi is regarded as one of the most interesting churches of the Tigray region, not least because of the spectacular access route through a narrow cleft of sandstone. Separate doors for male and female visitors, both of which have a distinctly Axumite design, lead worshippers in to a large church, the ceiling of which is dominated by a series of primitive, but very well-preserved, paintings depicting scenes from both the Old and New Testaments. The walk from the road is roughly an hour, requiring a reasonable degree of fitness and agility, but nothing to the extent of some other churches in the region.
The most remote, although peculiarly the first of Tigray’s Cave Churches visited by an outsider, Professor Mordini in 1939, Maryam Wukro is one of the most enduringly popular churches on the Tigray “circuit” and one we heartily recommend including on any trip to the region. The church is a blend of traditional rock-hewn features and the more flamboyant Axumite architectural methods, the result of which is a wonderfully interesting place to visit. The décor is a mix of ancient rock paintings and more modern efforts, so it really offers something for everyone. Found 1.5kms from the last point accessible by vehicle, it is reasonably easy to access, although the wait to find a priest to show you the interior can take longer than the walk from your car! Visitors here can also make the short climb up a wooden ladder to see the (somewhat crudely) rock-hewn chapel of Wukro Giyorgis which again has a strong Axumite feel to it.