a weekend in lalibela: churches carved into hills

Lalibela has been on my ‘to visit’ place for years – ever since I first learned about it.  Lalibela is a town in northern Ethiopia that is the location of 11 “rock-hewn” churches. I think it is difficult to grasp what rock-hewn really means: they are carved from / into the hillside. I have been to Petra many times, where the facades of burial rooms were carved – the grand images you see are the carved fronts of the sandstone hills. The Lalibela churches are not just facades but, for most of them, their full structure is carved out of the stone. The most grand churches look as if they were built of small stones put together – the hill has been chiseled far away from the church structure and there are wonderful pillars inside and out. You can read more about the history of the churches at the UNESCO World Heritage Site or Wikipedia. Here is a brief photo journal.

Some of the churches are still connected to their hillside – you can see the hillside above the church.

And in others, you can see the hill connected at the back of the church.

Several of the churches are completely freestanding – everything, pillars included, has been carved from the same stone. (This church has started to fall apart so is protected by a roof above what is visible in this photo and some of the pillars have had to be replaced with bricks, which you can see in this photo.)

This was my favorite church: completely freestanding with just one entrance to the hole in the hill that contains the church (black part on right of photo).

This is a side view of the same church. Isn’t that awesome?!

But not all of the churches were quite as grand. However, just take a moment and think about how much rock had to be chiseled away to make this simple church. And that chiseling was done through volcanic rock, not sandstone.

Then there is the church that might have been the palace of King Lalibela. I took this photo from the other side of what I would call a moat. To me, this looks like a castle, although the inside has been modified to be a church. What do you think?

In order to go inside any of the churches, you had to take off your shoes. At one church, you exit from a different place than you enter. The watchman was kind and moved our shoes to where we would exit.

At some churches old, magnificent wood doors remained.

The interior of some churches were plain, but others were wonderfully carved. In this church, the beveled wall goes around the entire inside wall.

This is the interior of the cross church, which appropriate has crosses on the ceilings of each part of the church.


This was probably the most impressive interior because it looked so much like a basilica – a center with two aisles, all lined with columns. Grand. But pause for a second and notice the floor: it is as bumpy and uneven as it looks under the carpets. Apparently the precision of the workmen extended to the walls and ceilings was not necessary where mere man would walk.

In a couple churches, there were paintings on the walls or on canvases. Here, you can see some of the old paintings on the ceiling and a newer canvas painting popped up on the floor. The styles are Ethiopian and all tell Bible stories and the stories of martyrs in distinctly Ethiopian colors and styles.

I was shown this book, 600 years old, when I hiked to another church about 4 miles away. In most countries, this would be behind glass or taken out of storage only for special visitors. I am thankful for the honor of seeing this book and several others. Again, notice the style of the painting.

Here we take a step outside to something I normally think of as belonging inside a church: the baptismal. Each baptismal is carved into the stone outside the church – many of them meters deep. Although I cannot imagine getting into this water. I love the contrasting colors it creates.

While there is so much more to be seen, you need to go in person to explore these churches. It will be well worth the time. Today, I leave you with a Lalibela sunset.



2 Replies to “a weekend in lalibela: churches carved into hills”

  1. So cool, Pam. These are incredible churches – glad you were able to see them! The one in the middle of the small canyon is unbelievable!

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