Ethiopia – LALIBELA (us)

(population 15000-20000 / elev 2630m)

I am weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more…but swear I by God in Whose power I am, that all that is written is the truth, and there is much more than what I have written, and I have left it that they may not tax me with its being falsehood.

Francisco Alvares (early 16th-century Portuguese writer) from Ho Preste Joam das Indias: Verdadera informa-cam das terras do Preste Joam (1540)

Nearly 1000 years ago a poisoned man was taken by angels to the first, second and third heavens. Here he was shown a fabulous city of rock-hewn churches. Then God himself commanded him to return to earth and, re-creating what he had seen, build a new Jerusalem.

At the start of the 21st century this vision of heaven still exists; its buildings frozen in stone, its soul alive with the rites and awe of Christianity at its most ancient and unbending. No matter what you’ve heard about Lalibela, no matter how many pictures you have seen of its breathtaking rock-hewn churches, its dimly lit passageways or its hidden crypts and grottoes, nothing on earth can prepare you for the reality of seeing the new Jerusalem for yourself. It is truly the wonder of Africa. A night vigil here, during one of the big religious festivals, when white-robed pilgrims in their hundreds crowd the courtyards of the churches and priests in royal robes wade through the crowds to worship in a church made by the hands of angels, is to witness Christianity in its most raw and powerful form.

History

Lalibela, initially known as Roha, was the Zagwe dynasty’s capital in the 12th and 13th centuries. After the death of King Lalibela, the ruler credited with the construction of the churches, the town was named after him.

In a rare consensus, scholars and local tradition both claim that the churches date from around King Lalibela’s reign in the 12th or 13th century. Legend states that Lalibela was poisoned by his half-brother and while in a coma he went on a journey to heaven (others say Jerusalem) where God instructed him to return to Ethiopia and re-create the holy city of Jerusalem there.

Even the names of Lalibela’s features echo those of Jerusalem: the River Jordan, Calvary and the Tomb of Adam. However, the buildings are so different from each other in style, craftsmanship and state of preservation that they may span a much longer period than Lalibela’s reign.

The consensus between scholars and local tradition is thrown out the window when discussions about who built the churches arise. Some wizardly scholars with powerful calculators have estimated that it would have taken a workforce of 40,000 to construct the churches, while locals claim that, toiling all the hours of daylight, the earthly workforce was then replaced by a celestial one, who toiled all the hours of darkness. In this way, the churches rose at a miraculous speed.

However, foreign intervention, whether celestial or mortal, can almost certainly be ruled out. Long a victim of the usual ‘it can’t be African’ chauvinism, Lalibela in fact almost certainly represents the pinnacle of a very long-standing Ethiopian building tradition.

Exceptional masonry skills had long been in existence during the days of Aksum, and indeed most of the churches show clear characteristics of the ancient Aksumite style. If angels did build the churches, they were almost certainly Ethiopian angels.

Ethiopie Lalibela Plan LP

Information

Commercial Bank (h8-11am & 1-3pm Mon-Fri, 8-11am Sat) Changes cash and travellers cheques. A number of the top-end hotels can change US dollars and euros but rates are poor.

Lalibela Health Center (0333 360416; h8.30am-noon & 1.30-5.30pm)

Loza Internet (h8am-9pm; per hr Birr60) Of the several internet cafes in town this is by far the best. For Ethiopia it offers shockingly fast connections. Telecommunications office (h8am-8pm) International calls. Standard rates (p254). It’s next to the post office.

Tourism office (0333 360167; h 8am-noon & 1.30-5.30pm Mon-Fri) This office offers some helpful advice and sells several small booklets on Lalibela.

Dangers & Annoyances

Thanks to a concerted effort from the local authorities, harassment from unlicensed ‘guides’ has dropped considerably in the past couple of years. Even so, there are still a few, including children, lurking about. Using children as guides encourages them to play truant at school, while using unlicensed guides encourages unhealthy migration to Lalibela (and more unemployed ‘guides’ harassing travellers). Hiring either also won’t contribute to your visit as few children or unlicensed guides know much about the churches.

Sights

Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches (admission Birr200, personal video cameras Birr100; h6am-6pm) are remarkable for three main reasons: many are not carved into the rock but freed entirely from it, the buildings are so refined and there are so many within such a small area.

Although time has treated the churches with remarkably gentle gloves, Unesco has built rather hideous scaffolding and roofing over most churches to protect frescoes from water seepage. Fortunately they won’t detract from your enjoyment too much.

Although visiting without a guide is possible – getting lost in the warren of tunnels is quite memorable and usually not permanent – you’ll miss out on many of the amazing subtleties each church has to offer. We’d recommend going once with a guide and once solo, in whichever order you choose. Local licensed guides can be arranged at the tourism office for a set fee of Birr150 per day (Birr200 for groups of five or more). However, during slow times licensed guides on the street (always ask to see their licence) will occasionally drop their fees.

The ticket office (h8am-noon & 2-5pm) lies beside the path leading to the northern group of churches and Bet Medhane Alem. Tickets give access to all churches in town for the duration of your stay. There are rumours that these admission charges will increase to Birr300 during the lifetime of this book.

Note that camera flashes inside churches cause great damage to the murals and frescoes, so please resist using one. Many of the priests are more than happy to show off their church’s treasures and pose obligingly beside them for photos. It is customary and polite to tip them something small afterwards (Birr5).

The self-appointed shoe bearers found at each church doorway seemed to have disappeared at the time of research, but should they return a tip of Birr1 per person per church is fair.
Lastly, dont forget to bring your torch.

NORTHWESTERN GROUP OF CHURCHES

This group contains six of Lalibela’s 11 churches and sits immediately behind the ticket office. From a size perspective, this group is easily the most impressive.

Bet Medhane Alem

Resembling a massive Greek temple more than a traditional Ethiopian church, Bet Medhane Alem (Saviour of the World) is impressive for its size and majesty. Said to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world, it measures 33.5m by 23.5m and is over 11.5m high.

Some scholars have suggested that the church may have been a copy in rock of the original St Mary of Zion church in Aksum.

The building is surrounded by 34 large, rectangular columns (many actually replicas of the originals). The three jointed at each corner are thought to represent the Holy Trinity. There are a further 38 columns inside that support the gabled roof.

The interior consists of a barrel-vaulted nave and four aisles. Look for the three empty graves in one corner, said to have been prepared symbolically for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Pierced stone ‘panels’ fill the windows, each decorated with different central crosses. You may be allowed to see the famous 7kg gold Lalibela cross. In 1997 it was stolen by an Ethiopian antique dealer and sold to a Belgian tourist for US$25,000. Thankfully, it was recovered.

Bet Maryam

Connected to Bet Medhane Alem by a tunnel is a large courtyard containing three churches. The first, Bet Maryam, is small yet designed and decorated to an exceptionally high standard. Dedicated to the Virgin, who’s particularly venerated in Ethiopia, this is the most popular church among pilgrims. Some believe it may have been the first church built by Lalibela.

On its eastern wall you’ll see two sets of three windows. According to scholars, the upper set is thought to represent the Holy Trinity, while the lower three, set below a small cross-shaped window, are believed to represent the crucifixion of Jesus and the two sinners. The lower right window has a small irregular-shaped opening above it, a signal that this sinner was accepted to heaven after repenting his sins and asking for Jesus’ help. The lower left window, which represents the criminal who mocked Jesus and was sentenced to hell, has the small irregular-shaped opening below it.

Above the western porch and squeezed beneath the roof is a rare and beautifully carved bas-relief of St George fighting the dragon.

Inside, the ceilings and upper walls are painted with very early frescoes, and the columns, capital and arches are covered in beautifully carved details such as birds, animals and foliage, including a curious two-headed eagle and two fighting bulls, one white, one black (thought to represent good and evil).

At the nave’s eastern end is a column that’s kept permanently wrapped in cloth. Nobody knows what lies beneath, though rumours abound – ask your guide.

Bet Meskel

Carved into the courtyard’s northern wall at Bet Maryam is the tiny semi-chapel of Bet Meskel. Four pillars divide the gallery into two aisles spanned by arcades.

Keep an eye out for the cross carved in relief beneath stylised foliage on one of the spandrels of the arches.

Bet Danaghel

To the south of the Bet Maryam courtyard is the chapel of Bet Danaghel, said to have been constructed in memory of the maiden nuns martyred on the orders of the 4th-century Roman emperor Julian in Edessa (modern-day Turkey). Many of its features – the cruciform pillars and bracket capitals – are typical architectural features of the churches.

Bet Golgotha, Bet Mikael & Selassie Chapel

A tunnel at the southern end of the Bet Maryam courtyard connects it to the twin churches of Bet Golgotha and Bet Mikael (also known as Bet Debre Sina).

Bet Mikael serves as an anteroom to the Selassie Chapel, one of Lalibela’s holiest sanctuaries. It contains three monolithic altars. One is decorated with a beautiful relief of four winged creatures with their hands held up in prayer; it’s thought to represent the four evangelists. Unfortunately, the chapel is very rarely open to the public.

Bet Golgotha is known for containing some of the best early examples of Ethiopian Christian art. On the so-called Tomb of Christ (an arched recess in the northeast of the church), a recumbent figure is carved in high relief; above it, in low relief, hovers an angel. Almost as amazing are the life-size depictions of seven saints carved into the walls’ niches.

Close to the Tomb of Christ is a movable slab of stone, which is said to cover the most secret place in the holy city: the tomb of King Lalibela himself. Such is the importance and sanctity of Golgotha that a visit is said to assure your place in heaven.

Bet Golgotha also boasts some of Lalibela’s most important religious treasures. You may be shown a blackened metal cross (thought to symbolise the nails of crucifixion) and a large prayer stick (composed of wood, iron and horn), both supposed belongings of King Lalibela. Sadly women are not allowed into Bet Golgotha. Standing in a deep trench in front of the western facade of Bet Golgotha is the so-called Tomb of Adam. It consists of a giant, hollowed-out block of stone.

SOUTHEASTERN GROUP OF CHURCHES

Although smaller in size than the northwestern group, the southeastern cluster offers not only one of Lalibela’s most finely carved churches but also some intrigue, with various historians debating whether some churches had pasts as prisons and palaces.

Bet Gabriel-Rufael

Its entrance flanked to the west by a sloping sliver of hewn rock known as the ‘Way to Heaven’, this imposing twin-church marks the main entrance to the southeastern group.

Unlike most Lalibela churches its entrance is at the top and is accessed by a small walkway, high over the moat-like trench below. This, along with its curious, irregular floor plan, has led scholars to propose that Bet Gabriel-Rufael may have been a fortified palace for Aksumite royalty as early as the 7th and 8th centuries.

Although the section of Bet Rufael’s roof that collapsed has been rebuilt, services only take place in Bet Gabriel. Once inside the complex you’ll realise its monumental facade was its most interesting feature.

Bet Merkorios

Reached via a long, narrow and pitch-black tunnel that starts from Bet Gabriel-Rufael, this current church may have started as something altogether different. The discovery of ankle shackles among other objects has led scholars to believe that the building may have served as the town’s prison, or house of justice.

Due to a large section of roof collapsing, the interior is a fraction of its former size. Don’t miss the beautiful fresco thought to represent the Three Wise Men. With their little flipper hands and eyes that look askance, they’re delightfully depicted; it may date from the 15th century. The 12 Apostles are also represented in a less attractive fresco, probably of a later date. The painting on cotton fabric is believed to date from the 16th century, though the priests will claim it’s from the 14th century. Formerly, such paintings were plastered to the church walls with a mixture of straw, ox blood and mud.

Bet Amanuel

Freestanding and monolithic, the Bet Amanuel is widely considered as one of Lalibela’s most finely carved churches. Some have suggested the church was the royal family’s private chapel.

It perfectly replicates the style of Aksumite buildings, with its projecting and recessed walls mimicking alternating layers of wood and stone. To appreciate this fully, you should make a day trip to Yemrehanna Kristos (p164), which is one of Ethiopia’s best-preserved Aksumite structures.

The most striking feature of the interior is the double Aksumite frieze in the nave. Although not accessible, there’s even a spiral staircase connecting the four-pillared walls to an upper gallery. In the southern aisle, a hole in the floor (beneath the donation box) leads to a long, subterranean tunnel (one of three) that connects the church to Bet Merkorios and Bet Gabriel-Rufael.

Outside, you may see the odd ‘sacred bee’ flying about. Behind a high door in the courtyard’s southern wall is their hive. Throughout Ethiopia, honey produced in churches is believed to possess special healing properties.

The chambers in the walls are the old graves of pilgrims who requested to be buried here.

Bet Abba Libanos

Bet Abba Libanos is hewn into a rock face and is unique among Lalibela’s churches in that it’s a hypogeous church. In English, that means only the roof and floor remain attached to the strata.

Like Bet Amanuel, many of its architectural features, such as the friezes, are Aksumite. Curiously, although it looks large from the outside, the interior is actually very small. The carved corners of its cubic capitals are unique; some guides say they may represent angel eyes.

The church is said to have been constructed in a single night by Lalibela’s wife, Meskel Kebra, with a little help from angels. The church seems to grow from the rock and gives you a vivid idea of the work required to excavate these churches. A tunnel leads off the church to the tiny chapel of Bet Lehem.

HOOFPRINTS & SAINTLY REMINDERS Just as King Lalibela was finishing off his series of churches, he was suddenly paid an unexpected visit. Astride a white horse and decked out in full armour came Ethiopia’s patron saint, George. However, the saint turned out to be severely piqued: not one of the churches had been dedicated to him.Profusely apologetic, Lalibela promised to make amends immediately by building him the most beautiful church of all.Today, the priests of Bet Giyorgis (meaning ‘Place of George’) point out the hoofprints left behind by the saint’s horse, permanently imprinted in stone on the side of the trench.

BET GIYORGIS

Resting all on its own, south and west of the northwestern and southeastern groups, is Lalibela’s masterpiece, Bet Giyorgis. Standing on the brow of its compound, you’ll have little doubt that it’s the most mesmerising object in all of Ethiopia.

Representing the apogee of the rock-hewn tradition, the Bet Giyorgis is the most visually perfect church of all, a 15m-high three-tiered plinth in the shape of a Greek cross. Due to its exceptional preservation, it also lacks the obtrusive scaffolding seen on the other churches.

Inside, light flows in from the windows and illuminates the ceiling’s large crosses – beauty in simplicity. There are also two 800-year-old olive-wood boxes; one (with the opposing corkscrew keys) is rumoured to have been carved by King Lalibela himself. Inside this box is also a crucifix, which is rumoured to have been made with gold brought from King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem.

Be warned that some of the cavities in the walls surrounding the church hold unsettling mummified corpses.

See also the boxed text above .

Festivals & Events

The most exciting time to visit is during a major festival, when thousands of pilgrims crowd in for Timkat, Leddet and Fasika. Meskel and Kiddus Yohannes are also busy. See p248 for dates and details.

Outside these periods, try to attend at least one church’s saint’s day; inquire at your hotel.

Sleeping

Accommodation in Lalibela is expensive and vacancies are almost nonexistent during the festival period and European Christmas, so reservations up to six months in advance aren’t unheard of. However, prices for reserved rooms during these times treble or more. If you arrive during a festival without reservations, you’ll risk being forced into a dive. Conversely, if there’s space, you’ll end up paying a fraction of what you would have if you’d made those costly reservations.

Discounts are negotiable in most hotels from May through August.

Lalibela suffers from water shortages, particularly during dry season and high tourism season. Hotels may limit showering to early mornings and evenings or may give out buckets of warm water instead. Lengthy electrical cuts are still a problem.

BUDGET
Helen Hotel (0333 360053; s with/without bathroom Birr80/60, d with/without bathroom Birr120/70)

The rooms here could do with being tidied up a bit but the price is good and chances are the gorgeous family who run it will quickly adopt you as one of their own.

Alif Paradise Hotel (0911 556211; alparahotel@yahoo.com ; old block s/tw Birr80/120, new block s/tw Birr150/200)

The huge investment the owners of this place have recently put into it has paid off with the rooms in the new block being bright, tiled and clean with bathtubs and views. The older rooms, though tatty, are still decent value. A new restaurant should be completed by the time you read this.

Asheton Hotel (0333 360030; r Birr100)

This classic budget-traveller haunt offers genuine bang for your buck with cosy whitewashed rooms, walls decorated with local art and embroidered bedding. The showers are hot, the service is pleasant and the garden courtyard a quiet spot to relax in.

Selam Guest House (0333 3600374; d/tw Birr100/200)

This very friendly guesthouse still had that new out-of-the-wrapper look when we passed by. The rooms are plain and simple, and the bedspreads are made from traditional Ethiopian textiles.

Blue Lal Hotel (0333 360380; d & tw Birr120-150)

Although extremely austere, these rooms are bright, clean and the showers spurt out hot water – some of the time. Land room 2, 3 or 4 and you’ll have a balcony to play on.

Heaven Guesthouse (0333 360075; s/d without bathroom US$12/15)

If this really is heaven then all we can say is that heaven is a lot cheaper than we imagined it to be. We can also tell you that heaven isn’t always equal, so have a look at a few rooms first: some are a bit boring, but others have pretty bedspreads and open-plan bathrooms.

MIDRANGE & TOP END

Seven Olives Hotel (0333 360020; s/d/tw US$15/27/27; i)

The oldest hotel in Lalibela continues to receive many positive recommendations. It has comfortable rooms that look across lovely gardens full of bird tables and hundreds of unfeasibly colourful birds. The only bad point we could come up with is that many of the bathrooms are a bit mouldy.

Yemereha Hotel (0333 360862; www.greenlandethiopia.com; s/d/tw US$35/45/45)

Run by the long-established Greenland Tours, this is an excellent new addition to the Lalibela hotel scene. The spacious rooms are beautifully furnished with local art and crafts and at the end of a long day’s church gazing, the baths fill to the brim with steaming H₂O. However, the ‘eco’ in the advertising is sadly just a word.

Tukol Village (0333 360564; s/d US$40/50)

Despite the manager’s attitude towards tourists, the clean and classy tukuls on offer at this Dutch-owned place remain very popular. Past guests have even included Bill Clinton (if you want to sleep in the same bed as Bill did, take room 11). Apparently Mr Clinton didn’t tip; it might have been the manager that put him off.

Mountain View Hotel (0333 360804; www.mountainsviewhotel.com; s/d US$43/55.50)

Eagles get all dewy-eyed and jealous over the stupendous views over the distant plains from this impeccable new hotel. The rooms are standard business class in look and feel and therefore don’t quite fit in with village life in Lalibela; however, if comfort is what you want, then comfort is what you’ll get.

Eating

Unique Restaurant (mains Birr10-15)

Opposite the Asheton Hotel, this dark and understated little restaurant, serving cheap and tasty Ethiopian dishes, receives regular positive reviews from happy punters.

Kedemt Cafe (mains Birr10-20)

One of several identikit, and equally good, restaurants in town that locals flock to for a good injera stuffing.

Blue Lal Hotel (mains Birr12-20)

This carefully groomed restaurant has a traditional grass-covered floor and big bright injera baskets on every table. The Ethiopian food is superb and the faranji dishes aren’t far behind either. The highlight are the pizzas – some of the best in north Ethiopia.

Helen Hotel (mains Birr15)

The restaurant at this friendly hotel needs a bit of notice to prepare pasta or injera-flavoured meals, but the results don’t disappoint. The meals are a couple of courses long and the staff have an eye for detail in the presentation category.

Seven Olives Hotel (mains Birr15-35)

Eat inside the modern tukul or dine alfresco on the leafy terrace. An Ethiopian chef with US experience has trained the staff to make more than the usual faranji fare. The result is the nicest eating experience for miles around.

Drinking

Besides having a cold sunset drink on the Seven Olives Hotel’s terrace, there’s one other drinking experience you shouldn’t miss.

Askalech Tej House (flask of tej Birr5) Also known as ‘torpedo’, it serves tej (honey wine) of varying potency. There’s usually traditional music after 7pm.

Shopping

Fine Art Gallery (h7am-8pm) This is one shop that stands out from Lalibela’s throng of souvenir shacks. Inside are beautiful watercolour and sepia paintings created by Tegegne Yirdaw, a local artist who can count Princess Anne as one of his work’s admirers.

Getting There & Away

Ethiopian Airlines (0333 360046) flies at least once daily to Addis Ababa (US$136, 1½ to two hours), Gonder (US$98, 30 minutes) and Aksum (US$112, 40 minutes). It’s not currently possible to fly from Lalibela to Bahir Dar (though you can do it in the opposite direction).

Overland, the best approach is currently from Woldia via Gashema. Gashema can also be reached from the west but transport is sporadic at best. With your own vehicle (or oodles of patience), it’s a rewarding journey to arrive from the north via Adwa, Abi Addi and Sekota. On that note, fuel (out of the barrel) is now available in Lalibela.

Two buses depart daily at 6am for Woldia (Birr36, five to seven hours), with one continuing to Addis Ababa (Birr95, two days) after overnighting in Dessie (Birr58, 8½ to 10 hours). There’s a daily bus to Bahir Dar (Birr65, 10 hours). The bus station is an inconvenient couple of kilometres out of town and with no transport it’s a long, hot and very sweaty walk. Fortunately locals will point out the shortcut, which reduces the hike somewhat. If you call ahead most hotels will arrange a pickup for you.

Getting Around

Most midrange hotels offer a transfer service to the airport, which is 23km south of town.

Of the midrange hotels that arrange 4WD hire to visit the churches outside town (right), the Seven Olives has the best prices.

If you think Landrovers are crude brutes, you can hire a mule for longer or steeper treks; ask at your hotel. A full day should set you back Birr100 per mule and driver.

AROUND LALIBELA

Many other fascinating churches and monasteries lie within a day’s striking distance of Lalibela, and a journey to them, whether by foot, mule or 4WD, is rewarding. Don’t forget to look for the endemic white-billed starlings while on the go. The stunning countryside is also home to unique ecotourism treks.

Ecotreks on the Mesket Escarpment

Though it lacks the bragging status of the Simien Mountains, trekking on the Mesket Escarpment surrounding Lalibela is a wonderful experience that mixes astounding scenery, historical riches and a fascinating insight into the life of Ethiopian highlanders. Many people regard walking here as one of the highlights of their Ethiopian adventure. Treks are organised through the noteworthy local charity Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives (TESFA; 0111 225024; www.community-tourism-ethiopia.com).

TESFA’s goal is ‘to work in partnership with local communities to enable them to generate sustainable improvements in their livelihood through the development of their own tourism-related enterprises, while also contributing to the protection of their physical and cultural environments’. Save the Children (UK) and the Royal Netherlands Embassy have helped fund the project.

Treks are typically three to five days long and take place along the top of the escarpment, which houses caves, rock-hewn churches, fascinating columnar basalt outcrops and little villages. Because you stay on the escarpment, gradients are quite low and you’ll find the walking is fairly easy.

TESFA has three camps in local villages (with more on the way), each currently consisting of traditional yet comfortable tukuls. Wajela camp sits near an interesting cave complex, Mequat Maryam teeters near the escarpment edge and offers incredible vistas – even the view from the toilet is inspiring – and Yadukulay (50km south) is set on a twin-peaked hill.

Treks – including guides, packing mules and drivers, accommodation, meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner and the odd snack), tea and coffee – cost Birr450 per person per day (there are discounts for children).

Transportation to and from Lalibela must be arranged privately, though TESFA recommends the local 4WD operator Habtamu (b_h2007@yahoo .com ) who charges Birr600 to Birr1000 for drop-offs at Meket.

Due to limited space, these treks must be booked well in advance. TESFA is also in the process of opening up new trekking regions, including in the mountains immediately behind Lalibela and up in Tigray. Both these routes were virtually ready to go at the time of research. Contact TESFA for more information.

Churches & Monasteries

The churches around Lalibela vary greatly in style, design and age; some are even thought to predate those in Lalibela. Tucked away and still absent from any modern maps, many of the churches require a guide to find them.

See Lalibelas Getting Around section (left) for transport details.

YEMREHANNA KRISTOS

Despite Yemrehanna Kristos (admission Birr75, video cameras Birr50) being one of Ethiopia’s best-preserved late- Aksumite buildings, few people reward themselves with a visit. And a reward it is for this is a beautiful church with a friendly priest and, for the macabre, there’s even a bunch of dead dudes hanging out here. The church is about 1½ hours (45km) away from Lalibela by 4WD.

The church is unusual because it’s built rather than excavated. Seeing the stepped exterior facade, created from alternating wood and stone layers, you’ll truly come to appreciate why so many of Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches look like they do. And knowing that Yemrehanna Kristos may predate Lalibela’s churches by up to 80 years, you have before you a virtual blueprint of greatness.

Incredibly, the whole church sits on a foundation of carefully laid olive-wood panels, which ‘float’ it perfectly above the marshy ground below. The carving and decoration are exceptional, especially the cruciform windows and the elaborate nave ceiling. Conceiving how the massive marble arches were placed so accurately in such surrounds is almost harder to grasp than the construction of Lalibela’s churches.

Behind the church lies a pile of mummified bodies (the priests told us there were over 10,000 of them): some are those of pilgrims who’ve come here to die over the centuries, others are said to be those of the workmen who were brought in from far away Jerusalem to help Yemrehanna Kristos construct the church.

This entirely inspiring and slightly spooky complex sits within a cave roofed by basalt lava flows. The ugly brick wall at the front was built in 1985 to improve the church’s security.

It’s also possible to get here by foot or mule. Both options take about five hours to cover the shorter 20km distance.

ARBATU ENSESSA

West of Yemrehanna Kristos, around 35km from Lalibela, is Arbatu Ensessa (admission Birr50). It’s a three-quarter monolith church in a wild, overgrown but rather beautiful setting. It’s thought to have been built by King Kaleb in AD 518. Arbatu ensessa means ‘the four beasts’ after the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

BILBILA CHIRKOS

Close to Arbatu Ensessa is Bilbila Chirkos (admission Birr50). An interesting three-quarter monolith, it’s known particularly for its ancient frescoes. Also attributed to King Kaleb, it’s thought to date from AD 523. It’s a three-minute walk from the road.

BILBILA GIYORGIS

Lying to the west of Arbatu Ensessa, around 32km from Lalibela, Bilbila Giyorgis (admission Birr50) is another attributed to King Kaleb. It resembles Bet Abba Libanos in design.

According to tradition, five swarms of bees took up residence shortly after the church was completed. They still reside here and their sacred honey is said to have curative properties, particularly for psychological disorders and skin problems. The priest will let you taste it. It’s 20 to 30 minutes’ walk up the hill to the church from the road.

ASHETAN MARYAM

Set at 3150m, atop a mountain that rises directly above Lalibela, is this monastery (admission Birr50). Understandably, there are commanding views in all directions. The local priests believe they’re ‘closer to heaven and God’ here, and it’s easy to see why.

The monastery’s construction is believed to span Lalibela’s and Na’akuto La’ab’s reign; some even claim King Na’akuto La’ab lies buried in the chapel. Church treasures include parchment and some icons.

Although the architecture here compares pretty poorly with Lalibela, it’s the stunning mountain scenery you really come for.

The 1½-hour climb (one way) is quite steep. Many travellers take mules, though you’ll still need to walk over the rockiest parts.

NA’AKUTO LA ‘AB

Lying 7km from Lalibela, just off the airport road, is this church (admission Birr50) attributed to King Lalibela’s successor. It’s simple but attractive (apart from the outer security wall) and built under a natural cave. It was almost certainly the site of a much older shrine.

Empress Zewditu built the ugly inner redbrick building. Some very old stone receptacles collect the precious holy water as it drips from the cave roof.

The church boasts various treasures said to have belonged to its founder, including crosses, crowns, gold-painted drums and an illuminated Bible.

GENETA MARYAM

Near the source of the Tekeze River, 31km from Lalibela, lies Geneta Maryam (admission Birr50). It’s thought to have been built around 1270 by Yekuno Amlak, who restored the Solomonic line. With its rectangular shape and 20 massive rectangular pillars that support it, Geneta Maryam resembles Lalibela’s Bet Medhane Alem. It’s also known for its remarkable 13th-century paintings.

On the western wall, there’s a moon-shaped face of Christ; and on the southern side, very grumpy-looking elephants. Geneta Maryam is about four hours by foot from Lalibela, or 1½ hours by vehicle.

MACHINA MARYAM

Two hours’ walk from Geneta Maryam and six hours’ walk from Lalibela is the remote church of Machina Maryam (Emachina Lideta Maryam; admission Birr50), said traditionally to have been constructed by three virgins during the reign of King Gebre Meskel in AD 537.

The church is constructed under an overhanging rock in a natural cave. It rather resembles Yemrehanna Kristos in design and many features are Aksumite, but its beautiful frescoes, some of hunting scenes with one-eyed lions, are the main attraction.

There are many bricked-up tombs in the church. Bodies buried under the rock are said to be preserved forever. The church is little visited, but is worth the long and steep ascent.

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