Lalibela: Must See Rock-Hewn Churches in New Jerusalem

Discover the secret of the rock town of Lalibela, home to breathtaking stone churches that are a marvel of architectural art. The churches in the Ethiopian town of Lalibela are this country’s remarkable historical and religious heritage. This unique location is also known as the “Jerusalem of Ethiopia”.

The churches were hewn into the surrounding rocks in the 12th century during the reign of King Lalibela. This highly religious king created them to symbolise his faith and devotion to Christianity. In 1978, they were included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. They are an essential pilgrimage site and a symbol of Ethiopia’s religious roots.

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Location and how to get there

Lalibela is located in the Amhara region in the northern part of Ethiopia.


You can reach Lalibela:

  • By air: The easiest and fastest way. The city has its own airport, Lalibela Airport. Ethiopian Airlines (official webpage here) has at least one flight a day, which takes about 1 hour. If you use Ethiopian Airlines for arrival in the country, you will get 50% off domestic flights.
  • By bus: There is a regular daily connection from the capital Addis Ababa. It’s a two-day trip.
  • By car: The roads are sometimes in bad condition, and you must be prepared to travel in difficult situations. The journey from Addis Ababa takes at least 16 hours.
Ethiopia view from the plane
View from the plane

Lalibela Airport is about 11 kilometres from the town of Lalibela. The road is sometimes just a dirt road and can be challenging. But the beautiful views of the surrounding countryside are worth it. There are several ways to get from the airport to the town of Lalibela:

  • Minibus: There is a regular minibus service between the airport and the town. One means of transport can accommodate 8 people. The ticket costs 100 birr.
  • Taxi: Each taxi driver tries to pick up as many people as possible (3-4). It rarely happens that there is only one passenger in a taxi.
  • Private transport: Some hotels and hostel owners offer private transportation from the airport.

If you plan to visit Lalibela during the holidays, remember to buy a ticket and book accommodation as soon as possible. These holidays are mainly:

  • Enkutatash – Ethiopian New Year, September 11, according to the Gregorian calendar
  • Maskal – The Day of the Acquisition of the Holy Cross, September 27, according to the Gregorian calendar
  • Gena – Ethiopian Christmas, January 7, according to the Gregorian calendar
  • Timkat – Three Kings, 12 days after Ethiopian Christmas, January 19

Entry to the Lalibela Churches

The ticket price is $50 (USD). The entry ticket is paid in US dollars. If you decide to pay in Ethiopian birr, the price ($50) will be converted according to the current exchange rate.

The ticket is valid for 5 days and has unlimited entries.

When buying a ticket, you must show a valid passport.

Before entering each church, you must take off your shoes. In smaller churches, shoes are left directly on the steps. Bet Medhane and Maryam have a dedicated space for storing shoes.

Men and women have different entrances to churches. Tourists usually enter churches through the women’s door. Covering your hair with a scarf is not mandatory, but it is expected during Masses.


Ethiopia is the oldest Christian country in the world (since 330 AD). There are several theories about the creation of these extraordinary structures. Some people believe they were carved by the Knights Templar.

The most widespread theory is that these churches were carved on the orders of the then-ruler, King Lalibela. This information can also be found in the small museum at the entrance to the church grounds. King Lalibela built these churches around the Jordan River in Ethiopia. His intention was to welcome all Christians to the “New Jerusalem”.

Lalibela map
Map of the churches

There are 11 large churches in Lalibela, which form a unique religious and historical complex. These churches are divided into two main groups – the Northern Cluster and the Southern Cluster.

The Northern Cluster

Bete Medhane Alem

This church is the largest monolithic church in the world and is known as the “House of the Saviour of the World.” It is the first church after entering the area.

Lalibela Bete Medhane Alem
Bete Medhane Alem

Bete Maryam (House of Mary)

According to legend, it is the oldest church that was carved first. It is a famous pilgrimage site. In this church, the main masses are held during Christmas and the birth of King Lalibela.

Lalibela Bete Maryam
Bete Maryam

Bete Meskel (House of the Cross)

It is dedicated to the biggest Christian holiday in Ethiopia, Meskel, which celebrates the finding of the Holy Cross. According to Ethiopian Orthodox traditions, only men can enter this church. Women are not allowed to enter.


Bete Danagel (House of Virgins)

Rumour has it that the Bet Danagel was built in memory of the 50 nuns who were prosecuted and tortured on the orders of the Roman Emperor Julian.

Bete Qedus Mikael and Golgotha (House of Golgotha Mikael)

Both churches, Bete Qedus Mikael and Bete Golgotha, belong together and can be reached through the same entrance. Bete Golgotha is named after the area where Jesus was buried. It is the most sacred church in Lalibela because the King of Lalibela is buried in it. His wooden prayer stick was also stored with him in Bete Golgotha. Women are not allowed to enter.

Lalibela Bete Golgotha
Bete Golgotha

Bete Qedus Mikael is also called Debra Sina, which means Mount Sinai.

Bete Giyorgis (House of Saint George)

Some place Bete Giyorgis in the Northern Cluster, others in the Southern Cluster. I decided that it should be independent.

Bete Giyorgis
Bete Giyorgis

This church is considered one of the most beautiful churches in Lalibela and is dedicated to Saint George. The church is 15 meters high. Its architecture creates the impression of a cross, which is very specific to this church.

Southern Cluster

Bete Gabriel Rufael (House of Gabriel Raphael)

The entrance to this church is unusual. You have to cross a bridge over a dry, deep ditch. According to the local priests, this ditch symbolizes hell, and the bridge represents the way to heaven.

Bete Gabriel Rufael
Bete Gabriel Rufael

The church is named after the Archangels Gabriel and Raphael. Due to the Bete Rufael roof’s poor condition, masses are held only at Bete Gabriel.

Bete Gabriel Rufael and Bete Aba Libanos are connected by a narrow but high tunnel.

Tunnel between Gabriel and Abba
Tunnel between Gabriel and Abba

Bete Aba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos)

According to the legend, angels participated in the construction of this church, and thanks to them, the building was finished in only one night. The church is dedicated to the 6th-century Ethiopian saint Aba Libanos. King Lalibela’s wife, Meskel Kebra, is buried in this church. The altar is located in the sacred part of the church, where no one is allowed to enter.

Lalibela Bete Aba Libanos
Bete Aba Libanos

Beth Amanuel (House of Emmanuel)

Bete Amanuel is the only monolithic church in the Southern Cluster. Some historians believe that Bete Amanuel was the royal family’s private chapel.

Bete Amanuel
Bete Amanuel

Bete Qedus Mercoreus

A 35-meter-long dark tunnel leads to Beta Qedus Mercoreus. It is said that it represents hell. Inside the church is a beautiful fresco (probably from the 15th century), which, according to local guides, is a portrait of the three wise men.

Lalibela Bete Qedus Mercoreus

The Monolithic Cross

It is located in the bed of the dried Jordan River.

The Monolithic Cross

The Mass

Bete Medhane Alem and Bete Maryam hold mass every morning. It is a must-see experience. Men and women enter churches by different stairs. There are wooden sticks at the entrance. Since there are no seats in churches and masses can be long, people use wooden sticks to lean on.

The mass
The mass

My guide advised me to cover my hair. It is not mandatory. It shows respect for local customs. During the service, men played drums and recited prayers.

The mass

At the end of the mass, the priest went to each person and had them kiss a large wooden cross. To my surprise, he even came to me.

Not all believers are inside the church during the service. Many churches are relatively small and only hold a small number of people. Most people are sitting outside or leaning against the walls.

Morning mass


During my travels around the world, I usually wander about just by myself without a guide. In the case of Lalibela, I recommend finding a local guide for the first day who knows the area and will tell you all about the local history and customs. Don’t book expensive tours online. It is best to contact your accommodation and ask them for a local guide. Another option is to find one at the airport’s arrival hall.

The churches of Lalibela left a huge impression and respect on me. Almost all buildings I have seen, except Petra, were built from the bottom up. They proceeded in the opposite direction in Lalibela and hewn the buildings into the ground. I regret not having more time to explore every church in more detail.

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