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Beer and Biryani :: The Travelling Adventures of Matt & Donna  
Cross (Meskal) Shaped window of one of the 11 Rock Hewn Churches at Lalibela, Ethiopia
NOVEMBER 12, 2007


I have been a paid up member of the Catholic Church all my life, during my extensive educative years I was fortunate enough to have been educated in five catholic primary schools and two Catholic colleges, as well as attending mass every Saturday night for the first 18 years of my life. After all this education, visiting Northern Ethiopia has provided me with the first real glimpse of the relevance of the biblical stories and an insight into the way Jesus's life may have been.

For all the Catholic church's teachings, somewhere along the way I get the feeling they have deviated from the true meaning of the word of God, this essence seems to still exist in the simplified practices of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. We spent a few hours one evening sitting in a stone courtyard, carved 15 metres into the bedrock over 1500 years ago by the ancient Ethiopians in homage to the Saints. We were surrounded by locals of all ages, some were wealthy, some were street kids, most were adorned with basic crucifix's and simple white Shama cloth blankets. Intertwined among the audience were Deacons and Priests, what started as a rhythmic humming soon developed into something deeper. Drumming and chanting followed and for two hours we were treated to the way a celebration amongst Jesus's followers would have happened 200 years ago.


In Bahar Dar we managed to hitch a ride east with a local lady working for Unicef in the fight against malnutrition amongst Ethiopian babies. Dave her driver collected us from the Ghion Hotel and we were very quickly heading out along the dirt track into the great Rift Valley.

Two spectacular hours and two flat tyres later we pulled in for a quick bite to eat - as always local hospitality is amazing and we were treated to breakfast by our hosts. After refueling we stopped at a road side shed where a gang of boys proceeded to fix both spare tyres using an odd bodge of tools that had clearly seen better days.

Back on the road it was not long before we had another flat tyre - while Dave put on a newly mended spare it gave us a little time to admire the country side at a slower pace. This was a truly amazing place. In some respects it is how I envision medieval England to have been. Peasants working in the fields, double story stone rondavals littering the hills, small villages on rocky outcrops, men riding around on horses decked out with fancy bridals and saddles - I half expected a troop of knights to canter over the hills as we pulled back onto the road.

After driving along the edge of the rift valley most of the morning, at Gashena we cut north immediately plunging down into the rift valley. Halfway down to the valley floor we received another flat tyre. With no spares left we all prayed this would be the last of our misfortune. The fascination tourists bring to this part of the world still amazes me. We were stopped for only ten minutes, yet in that time three young children rolled a good 500 metres down a sheer mountain cliff to arrive puffing and out of breath simply to stand and stare at us.

Pulling into Lalibela felt like entering a quaint little tourist town from anywhere in Australia.


Set high in the mountains at nearly 2630 metres above sea level, Lalibela is home to 11 Rock Hewn Churches, with many more dotted around the surrounding hills. As the fable goes, King Lalibela gathered together an estimated 40,000 labours, artisans and craftsman from around the world to carve the churches. Quite often fact has an uncomfortable way of getting in the road of a good yarn with modern archeologists confirming that several of the churches predate King Lalibela by at least 500 years.

It is hard to know what to write about the Rock Hewn Church's of Lalibela. After the disappointment of Bahar Dar and the Lake Tana Monasteries, Lalibela was refreshingly the real deal. We hired a guide from the Guides Association - our guide, Muchow turned out to be a local Deacon and during the day was able to provide an interesting (if untrue) account of each of the churches we visited, as well as information on the Ethiopian Church, the Ark of the Covenant, and all manner of inane questions I was able to come up with...including if Jesus was a black man.

Each church is ringed by massive trench work and courtyards. The churches have been hand carved using basic hand tools, some as much as 15 metres down into the rock. Tunnels up to 50 metres long link the various church's which are located in two distinct clusters. The largest of the churches is nearly 40 metres long by 25 metres wide.

I think the photos give a better overview, however I have provide a snippet of information below on each of the churches.

The Northwest Cluster

Bet Medhane Alem - House of the redeemer of the world
The largest monolithic rock hewn church in the world measuring 12 metres high, 38 metres long and 24 metres wide. 36 Massive pillars support the structure from the outside with another 26 pillars inside. The church is home to the impressive 800 year old solid gold Lalibela Cross, bought back from the Brussels museum a few years ago after a priest sold the cross a few years back.

Bet Maryam
This was the first church built in Lalibela, amongst Ethiopians it is the most popular of the churches. It is also different from all the other churches in that it is highly ornate. The walls inside are covered with ancient paintings, and the stone pillars have intricate cravings. The church is also made of two stories, the upper floor containing seven small prayer rooms over looking the lower area.

Bet Maryam is set in the middle of a large courtyard with two smaller churches set in opposite walls. In addition to the three churches, the courtyard contains two small pools carved into the floor of the rock. One is the baptismal pool - each church has one of these curved in it's courtyard, the second is a fertility pool - as the story goes women who bath in this pool will be cured of infertility...

Bet Meskal
One of the smallest churches in the cluster, Bet Meskal is carved into the wall near Bet Maryam. Un remarkable in design, it does however hold an ancient wooden cabinet used for storing the Ark of the Covenant.

Bet Danaghel
Even smaller than Bet Meskal, Bet Danaghel is carved into the opposite wall in the courtyard of Bet Maryam.

The final two churches in the Northern cluster are the twin churches of Bet Debre Sina (Bet Mikael), and Bet Golgotha.
These are Semi Monolith churches, the second accessed from the inside of the first. No women are allowed in Bet Debre Sina due to it's monastic origins. Inside however are seven life size relief's carved into the stone walls. Rumour also has it that the tomb of King Lalibela is in the rear Holy of Holies.

The South East Cluster

Bet Gebriel-Rafael
While Bet Gebriel-Rafael is a fully functioning church now, previously it is thought to have been the fortified residence of King Lalibela. A 5m deep trench rings the church, which although sunken itself, is rumoured to have a second level deeper still within the bedrock - it appears however that the tunnel leading into the second floor has been lost. Unfortunately part of the roof caved in during the monsoonal rains several years back, however UNESCO has done a brilliant job of making unobtrusive repairs to most of the churches at Lalibela - the roof has been left in it's decrepit state.

Bet Abba Libanos
As the story goes, Bet Abba Libanos was built overnight by King Lalibela's wife and some angels.

From Bet Abba Libanos we were lead by Deacon Muchow through a 50 metre tunnel in the pitch dark to Bet Lahem. While Bet Lahem is little more than a small chapel we were happy to meet the local priest there who was very pleased to accept a Strepsil for his sore throat.

Bet Emanuel
This church is supposedly the finest church in Lalibela. It is thought to have been carved as the private church of the Royal family. 18 metres long, by 12 metres wide, it is home to the remains of the sacred bees that prophesied Lalibela to be king.

Bet Mercurios
The final church of the South East Cluster is Bet Mercurios - carved around a cave it it thought to have served several purposes, possibly being that of an ancient jail house.

Bet Giyorgis
Set aside from both the northern and southern clusters, Bet Giyorgis is the most spectacular of the Lalibela churches. 15 metres in height and set in a massive carved courtyard, the church is carved in the form of a cruciform tower. Rumour has it that when Lalibela had carved his ten churches, he was visited by a very pissed off St George, angry that none of the churches were dedicated to him. Eager to please King Lalibela created the final church as the finest yet. Structurally it is the best designed with roof drainage systems to lead away the massive quantities of water. Inside the church the priest is all to keen to show off a wooden box containing King Lalibela's carving tools...


We finished a truly amazing day with a visit to the Saturday market. This was a real African market - so different from the touristy affairs we have encountered on so many occasions. Thousands of people had come in from the surrounding hills, found a little patch of ground, spread their plastic ground sheet and laid out their wares to barter away during the day. Everything imaginable was for sale - seeds, grains, goats, chickens, honey, all manner of fruits and vegetables, clothing and the tools needed to survive in the wilds. With Muchow's excellent advice we managed to pickup a couple of little bargains including a traditional cotton wool Gabba.


Walking around the next morning pondering what we had seen we were overtaken on the cobblestone street by an old man leading two mules, packed with goods purchased from the market the day before. He was heading into the hills, probably several days walk away and it was then that it hit me. Here where the Churches most coveted possession is the Ark of the Covenant - this could well have been the land where Moses walked down from the mountain carrying with him the Ten Commandments and the true word of god.

Click here to see the Lalibela Photo Gallery (21 photos)

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