Visiting “New Jerusalem” of Lalibela in Ethiopia
Visiting the “New Jerusalem” of Lalibela in Ethiopia
Wow. Breathtaking. Mesmerizing. Awe-inspiring. Words cannot do justice to Lalibela so please, please, please if you ever have the chance to visit just go!
A miraculous feat of engineering, this incredible complex of churches is a testament to mankind’s ingenuity and if it weren’t in Ethiopia it would undoubtedly be up there with the Colosseum, the Great Pyramid of Giza and other such iconic achievements of man.
Set around 2500 metres above sea level, Lalibela is a small town that is home to eleven monolithic churches that have somehow been hewn down into the rock of the mountains.
While debate still surrounds when exactly the churches were carved out of the rock, it is generally accepted that they were built after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 1187 that cut Christians off from the holy city. King Lalibela, therefore, decided to build a ‘New Jerusalem’ hidden away in the highlands of Ethiopia.
The 12-13th-century churches are spectacular in their design and it really is an incredible experience to visit this holy site. There are four groupings of churches and they are all connected by tunnels and hidden passages that weave their way through the rock. What is amazing is that you can be standing on the mountainside and not realise that a massive monolithic church lies just ten metres in front of you.
Symbolism is everywhere and at one point you have to crouch through a long pitch-black tunnel which symbolises the journey to hell. Later on there is a light, airy passage that is the journey to heaven and the Jordan River has been carved through the middle of the complex; drawing inspiration from the Jordan River in the real Jerusalem.
Still in use today, Orthodox Christians visit the churches daily and throughout the year there are numerous festivals when pilgrims descend en masse upon Lalibela. An amazing feat of engineering, the ancient Ethiopians somehow managed to figure out a way for each church to have access to fresh water and you’ll see little wells dotted about here and there.
For visiting the churches you definitely want to get a guide as there are so many hidden parts to the churches and you don’t want to miss out on the passageways that are tucked away in various corners which really make the whole experience.
In remarkably good repair, some of the churches do have protective awnings above them as the authorities look to prevent them from getting damaged though, on the whole, they are very much intact. The best preserved of them is the stunning Biete Giyorgis or the Church of Saint George and is many visitors’ favourite amongst the churches.
Many people don’t want to leave such is their splendour and luckily the ticket allows you to go back and continue exploring the complex for the next few days.
Heavenly. Divine. You won’t regret visiting the New Jerusalem!
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
From Addis Ababa, there are daily flights to Lalibela which is quite impressive considering the small size of the town. There is also a bus that weaves its way through the highlands of Ethiopia and while this is a much cheaper option; it could very well take you two whole days to get here and the bumpy ride is quite uncomfortable.
The flight only takes an hour and you’ll fly above some stunning scenery although it costs upwards of $200.
From the airport outside of the town, you can either get a taxi or a minibus with other people to Lalibela. The price of the minibus is around 100 Birr so around 3-4 dollars.
Hidden away in the rock, you’ll inevitably stumble upon the churches at some point as life in the town revolves around them.
Do – Activities & Attractions
While you’re going to want to spend as much time as possible wandering around the marvellous churches, there are some other nice places in the surrounding countryside for you to visit.
Lalibela is a very small town and it is nice enough to wander around though people often come up and ask you for money. There are numerous small cafes and bars for you to relax at and table foosball is very popular here if you want to play some of the Ethiopians that you’ll inevitably end up befriending.
In the nearby mountains, there are some fantastic treks and you can generally organise them in Lalibela. The scenery in this mountainous part of Ethiopia is stunning so they are a great thing to do if you have the time.
Scattered amongst the mountains are numerous rock churches similar to the eleven in Lalibela with some of them dug into the ground and others burrowed into caves. Well worth doing, you’ll constantly be amazed at what the medieval Ethiopian civilisation created.
Stay – Accommodation
Lalibela has a wide range of accommodation options that cater to all income levels. While expensive hotels mirror Western prices, the budget hotels are a lot cheaper to stay in. As the town is very small it doesn’t really matter where you stay in terms of location; generally speaking, they will all be located pretty near to the churches.
Eat – Restaurants
If you have spent some time in Ethiopia already and are craving something other than injera, well, you’ve come to the wrong place. Most restaurants serve up the Ethiopian staple with a couple of variations in terms of sauces, meats and vegetables.
As in most places you can organise to see a traditional Ethiopia coffee ceremony if you so desire.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
It is best to visit Lalibela and Ethiopia in general after September as from June to September is it the rainy season and it can get very muddy in parts. After the rains have stopped the countryside is beautifully covered in green and it makes Ethiopia that much prettier to visit.
The dry season is from mid-October to mid-March and is the optimum time to explore the country.
For Lalibela and its stunning churches, the two best times of year to visit are during the fantastic festivals that take place here.
Meskel is a hugely important celebration in Lalibela and pilgrims pour into the town for the festivities which commemorates the discovery of the True Cross that Jesus was borne on. It takes place in September each year.
Timkat is another great time to visit when Lalibela is packed with pilgrims and this festival celebrates the baptism of Jesus. Celebrated in January, the throngs of people only adds to the charm of the place.
Safety – Possible risks
Generally a safe place, you will have lots of young people come up to you in Lalibela asking you to buy them school materials or asking you outright for money.
There are various small level scams going on so just keep your wits about you.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
While Ethiopia is very cheap to travel around if you stay in cheap hotels, eat local food and take the bus, it can get very expensive very quickly and tourist attractions for foreigners are particularly bad in this respect.
Visiting the churches at Lalibela, for instance, costs 50$ although this does get you access to them for the next five days. As such you need to show a form of identification and this is written down on your ticket.
While you might be put out by the entrance price, getting a guide is an absolute must if you really want to appreciate the churches in all their undoubted glory.
It usually costs around 600 birr for a guide for the day and they know everything about the churches and will really bring them to life for you. You can negotiate and haggle the price down.
Apart from the entrance price, Lalibela is very cheap to visit.
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Responsible Travel – Best Practices
An absolutely incredible country to visit, Ethiopia really has everything you could want from a country with fantastic historical sites, stunning landscapes and rich cultures.
It is generally quite easy to find your way around and people are more than happy to help out although you will find that some people ask you for money.
Be polite, wear appropriate clothing and just keep an eye out on your possessions and you should be fine. For guided tours, make sure you arrange a price before you set off!
Reality Check – Be Aware
Be prepared to be amazed – these churches really are special.
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Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?
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