This town is famous for its rock-hewn churches, and these are an absolute must-see for any visitor to Ethiopia. Lalibela was apparently a young prince who was prophesised to become king; his older brother, the present king, was angry about this and in trying to poison his successor, was sent into a deep sleep in which an angel transported him to a city of rock-hewn churches and ordered him to replicate it.
Whilst this may be slightly implausible, the actual construction of the churches has always been a bit of a mystery, with rumours saying that an army of angels helped; it would certainly have taken about 40,000 people to carve them. This air of mystery adds to their charm.
With some churches standing at over 10 m high and with a warren of tunnels and hermit cells that give the impression of an underground village, the church complex is mind-boggling. Each church is individually designed, and the decorations that are carved into the rock so detailed that they simply defy belief.
They are also carved into the ground so that they are below ground level, and have a series of courtyards and trenches that surround the buildings.
The town of Lalibela itself is based at 2630 m above sea level, in a wild and rugged mountain range. The houses are circular and have two-storeys, and seem to cling to the steep slopes of the mountains. Town life is still very much centred on the churches, which are not crumbling away forgotten, or primarily tourist attractions; they are still used for religious practices and are the spiritual centre of the town. Early in the morning the town beats to the drums and chants being sung as the hermit priests who live in the caves under the ground emerge in white robes to sit on the rocks.
Adding to the atmosphere of wildness and solitude is the fact that outside of Ethiopia, very few people in the world know about Lalibela. If this were not the case, they would probably be counted as one of the great wonders of the world, along with the pyramids and the Sphinx. The fact that they are still in use makes them seem less like monuments to a distant past, but more like precious parts of the ancient world that has survived the tests of time. Those who have seen this area have been truly privileged.
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Our Recommended Tours
Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, Gondar, Lalibela, Axum - 7 nights/8 days
All of these tours are custom-made, prices are subject to change.
This encompasses four major historic sites: Axum, Lalibela, Gondar, and Bahir Dar. Axum was the seat of an empire which extended across the Red Sea to Arabia, traded with India and China, had its own alphabet and notational system, constructed great engineering works and dams.
Much of the fascination of Ethiopia lies in its myriad historical sites, the obelisks and stele of Axum, churches and Coptic monasteries in the Tigre, in the Lake Tana isles and in the Lalibela: the African Jerusalem with its monolithic churches.
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