The Jerusalem of Africa


Lalibela, Amhara, Ethiopia

GPS: 12.031536503852, 39.048217633839

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Perched in the Lasta Mountains at an altitude of 2,600 metres, Lalibela is a small, isolated settlement in northern Ethiopia. Religiously, this monastic complex forms the holy city of the country’s Orthodox and is the largest Christian city on the African continent. The sacred site of Lalibela is also called the Black Jerusalem or the Jerusalem of Africa for its similar topography, a symbolic representation of the Holy Land. It is renowned for its captivating collection of 11 rock churches carved into the underlying rock of the town (composed of pink sandstone and volcanic tuff).

The Islamisation of the region in the 7th century saw the Christian influence decline. However, in the 12th and 13th centuries, Christianity was revived under the Orthodox Christian Zagwe dynasty. Under the leadership of King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, excavated structures were dug into a high rocky plateau to give birth to rock churches. Succeeding the Kingdom of Aksum, the ruler transferred the capital of his empire to the newly built city of Lalibela (which he named Roha before the Zagwe renamed it after its founder). It was precisely after the capture of the city of Jerusalem in 1187 by the Muslim troops of Sultan Saladin that the king decided to build a “New Jerusalem” in Lalibela to enable the pilgrimage of Orthodox Christians from Ethiopia and elsewhere. Despite the spread of Islam, Lalibela became a major religious centre and pilgrimage site in the Amhara region.

The 11 monolithic churches of Lalibela have the unique distinction of all being built underground. They are the only churches in the world to have been carved into the rock in this way, from the outside, from top to bottom. The best known of these is the Church of Saint George (Biete Giyorgis) with its characteristic cruciform plan representing a Greek cross. From its base, other buildings can be reached through a series of tunnels and underground passages some 30 metres deep. The site of Lalibela also serves as a necropolis for worshippers wishing to rest close to King Lalibela. According to a legend, the dust from the tomb of the monarch, who is considered a saint, has miraculous properties. For more than eight centuries, an active community of priests, monks and pilgrims have kept alive the monastic life, the Christian faith, and the fervour of this important place in Ethiopia during great religious ceremonies.

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  • The church of Saint George (Biete Giyorgis), in the Aksumite style and in the shape of a cross, dug 15 metres deep; Biete Medhane Alem (the largest), Biete Denagel (one of the smallest), Biete Amanuel (three-storey), Biete Maryam (“the house of Mary”), Biete Lehem (“the house of the Holy Bread”), Biete Meskel (decorated with crosses and with the entrance door opening into the void) Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (one of the oldest), Biete Gabriel-Rufael (former royal residence), Biete Abba Libanos (with its roof clinging to the rock) and Biete Golgotha Mikael (containing the tomb of King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela)
  • The variety of architectural styles of the monolithic buildings (including Aksumite); the almost perfect proportion of the monuments (the interior and exterior were built at the same time)
  • The construction prowess for the time; the geometrical ornamentation and the fineness of the sculpted details; the remarkable carving of capitals, pillars, arches, and windows inside the buildings with rudimentary tools
  • The labyrinth of tunnels, ditches, galleries, rooms, and underground passages; the ancient wall paintings visible inside the churches
  • The network of catacombs and hermit caves; the absolute devotion of priests, deacons, monks and faithful to this mythical place in the history of the country; the magnificent liturgical scenes
  • The colourful Orthodox ceremonies, including the religious festival of Timkat at the end of January (the Epiphany, the baptism of Christ and the wedding at Cana are celebrated at the same time); the Fasika ceremony in April (the equivalent of Easter); the artistic and cultural performances of Lalibela Circus (dances, songs, choreographies, live shows…)
  • The weekly market in Lalibela (Saturday)
  • High and medium altitude trekking in the Amhara, Tigray and Afar regions
  • Spectacular views of the Lasta Mountains and sunset scenes on the churches of Lalibela; the rock tones change with the light as they soak up the light
  • Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world, along with Armenia. Christianity was introduced in the 4th century under the impetus of the kings of Aksum who founded a great and powerful Christian empire. Despite the influence of Islam in the region, the Coptic population of Lalibela has always managed to practice their faith as the ancients did before them.
  • Legend has it that shortly after the birth of the future King Lalibela, a swarm of bees formed around his head and cradle. This sign was interpreted by his mother as a royal destiny and she named the young boy Lalibela, meaning “the bees have recognised his sovereignty” in the Agaw language. Subsequently, the future monarch aroused the jealousy of his older brothers (including the then regent, King Harbay) and survived several assassination attempts. One of them saw Lalibela poisoned, which put him in a coma for three days. It was during his prolonged sleep that the young man is said to have been instructed by God to build churches with an ambitious architecture and plan, never seen before.
  • According to another legend, the churches of Lalibela were dug at such a fast pace that angels helped greatly in their construction during the night. In reality, it took 24 years to build or transform all the churches of Lalibela.
  • The monolithic churches of Lalibela are carved out of a single block. They were among the first 12 sites in the world to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978. The churches are divided into three distinct groups, which are separated by a moat representing a river called Yordanos in the Amharic language (i.e., the Jordan River, as a symbolic representation of the Holy Land). Hills are symbolically called Mount Tabor, Mount Sinai and Mount of Olives, and the monastic city also contains its own tomb of Adam.
  • The site of Lalibela was only scientifically studied in 2009 for the very first time. The historian Marie-Laure Derat, who led an archaeological mission, conducted the research. Her work tends to show that structures predating the churches were found under the excavated material (they are probably dated to the 10th or 11th century). The oldest parts are attributed to pagan populations. They were transformed into Christian churches and chapels by King Lalibela, who represented the Zagwe dynasty that had recently come to power in the region. This monarch also built new structures such as the Church of Saint George and christianised the inhabitants in the 13th century. He deliberately reproduced the Aksumite style in the architecture of religious monuments to reinforce his sovereignty over his newly converted people.
  • The Biete Medhane Alem Church is the largest monolithic church in the world.
  • The rock (basaltic slag) of Lalibela tends to turn to mud and disintegrate very easily in contact with water. For this reason, the churches were repeatedly rebuilt long after the reign of King Lalibela. To protect this extraordinary heritage, which is being weakened by erosion, UNESCO has embarked on a plan to restore the rock churches. Since 2008, temporary protective roofs in the form of metal structures have been used to protect certain monuments against the infiltration of rainwater and the friability of the rock. However, the recent appearance of cracks shows that these artificial shelters tend to weaken the structure of some churches or underground galleries and some even threaten to collapse. Further protection measures are being planned by the Ethiopian authorities and UNESCO to safeguard this heritage in the coming years.
  • In the past, the elders maintained the buildings, but this skill disappeared in the mid-twentieth century. They used a mixture of plants and food scraps with clay to fill the cracks.
  • Dust from the tomb of King Lalibela (considered a saint by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church since the late 15th century) is distributed by the priest of the Biete Golgotha Mikael Church to pilgrims. It is said to have the virtue of curing illnesses. It should be noted that women are not allowed inside this building.
  • The historic site of Lalibela is located more than 600 kilometres north of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Since November 2020, this region has suffered greatly from the civil war and its geographical proximity to an area controlled by the rebels of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). You are therefore strongly advised to check with your government for the latest security information.
  • If possible, avoid visiting during the rainy season between June and September.
  • A four-day ticket allows access to all 11 rock churches in Lalibela (they are close to each other).
  • Take a local guide to discover the secrets of this amazing place and access its underground tunnel system.
  • Continuing north to Aksum (Tigray province), you may come close to the mythical relic of the Ark of the Covenant. According to Ethiopian Orthodox mythology, it is preserved in the chapel of Church of Our Lady, Mary of Zion.

Where to eat

  • John Cafeteria
    (full breakfast)
  • Unique Restaurant
    (typical and local)
  • Ben Abeba
    (with confusing architecture)

Where to go

  • Yemrehanna Kristos Church
    (located in a cave)
  • Mount Abuna Yosef
    (high altitude hike)
  • Askalech Tej Bet
    (atmospheric bar)

Where to stay

  • Mountain View Hotel
    (breathtaking view)
  • Tukul Village
    (exotic and charming)
  • Top Twelve Hotel
    (beautifully decorated)