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The rock churches of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia

The rock churches of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia

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Northern Ethiopia has many highlights to offer the traveller. The most important highlights, which in our opinion should not be missed, are described on this page. The absolute highlight is a visit to the rock churches of Lalibela.

Pelicans in Northern Ethiopia

Bahir Dar, a day on the water

The town of Bahir Dar is also called the Riviera of Ethiopia. This is due to the relaxed atmosphere around Lake Tana. Lake Tana is the largest lake in Ethiopia. Because of its location at an altitude of 1800 metres, it is also the highest lake in Africa. The Blue Nile has its origin here. In Sudan it merges with the White Nile. From that point the river continues as the Nile.

When you visit Bahir Dar, then it is definitely recommended to spend a day with a boat on the lake. In the lake are many small islands and on several islands are churches and monasteries. After an hour of sailing you arrive at Zege Peninsula with the church Ura Kidane Mehret.

As soon as you step onto the island at the jetty, you walk through a coffee plantation to the walled, orthodox church. The church is from the 14th century and the beautiful murals are from ground to ceiling all with biblical scenes. It is said that this is the most beautiful church in Ethiopia. Do bring a guide who can tell you about the history, it gives a lot of added value to your visit.

Frescos in Lalibela, Northern Ethiopia

Gondar’s castles

A visit to Northern Ethiopia also includes a visit to Gondar. The city was the capital of Ethiopia until 1855 and has a large terrain with many palaces of kings and emperors within its walls. Now the area is known as Fasil Ghebbi. It is also called the “Royal Enclosure”. The area is on the world heritage list of UNESCO. It is worthwhile to walk in between with an explanation of a guide.

In addition, you should not miss the large outdoor pool of Emperor Fasiladas in Gondar and the church with the angelic eyes. The exterior of this church is quite simple, but when you enter you immediately see the frescoes and the hundreds of angels painted on the ceiling. The big eyes of the angels stare at you, not one angel is the same. Today it is one of the main tourist attractions of northern Ethiopia.

baskets in the Ethiopian rock churches

Gondar – Practical matters

  • Gondar is situated on the main route through northern Ethiopia and is easy to reach if you are in a chauffeur-driven car. But also, the bus from the surrounding larger towns goes regularly.
  • There are flights from Addis Ababa or from Lalibela.
  • There is plenty of choice of hotels in all classes, but if there is a festival then it is definitely wise to book well in advance.
  • If you are looking for a good restaurant with a warm welcome and good food, then The Four Sisters is at the top of your list. The best places can be found in the “old” part of the restaurant.
Worshipper with turban in Northern Ethiopia

The rock churches of Lalibela

The special rock churches of Lalibela from the 13th century are also called the eighth wonder of the world. A visit to these rock churches is the highlight of a trip through Northern Ethiopia. King Lalibela had 11 monolithic churches carved out of the rocks to build a holy city. When the king died, the city was named after him.

The underground corridors that connect the churches, the believers who are present at the churches day and night, the priests who read with a candle from the holy book in the darkness or the devotion of the believers, it is breath-taking. Services are still held every day in the churches. Every day there is singing and praying and it is worthwhile to get out of bed very early and attend a service.

The entire complex of churches has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1978. The complex is divided into three groups:

The rock churches of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia

The northern group

  • Bete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), the largest monolithic building in the world and perhaps a copy of the Sainte Maria of Zion in Aksum. It houses the Lalibela Cross.
  • House of Mary, or Bete Ghenettea Mariam, probably the oldest of all churches.
  • Bete Golgotha, where the tomb of King Lalibela stood.
  • Selassie Chapel.
  • Tomb of Adam.

The western group

The western group exhibits include the Bete Ghiorghis (House of St. George) This is the best-preserved church and most famous church with the cross on the roof.


The eastern group

  • The Royal Chapel of Bete Ammanuel (House of Emanuel)
  • Bete Merkorios, perhaps the former prison
  • Bete Abba Libanos
  • The house of Gabriel and Rafael Bete Gabriel-Rufael. It is suspected that it once served as a royal palace
incidence of light, Lalibela, Northern Ethiopia

Practical information for a visit to the rock churches of Lalibela

  • To be able to visit the churches in Lalibela, a ticket is required. This costs about $50 for a visit of three days. Keep the entrance ticket safe as you may be asked for it.
  • Have a guide because you can’t find all the corridors and special places by yourself. The guides are at the ticket office where you pay the entrance fee. A guide is assigned to you by means of a rotation system. So every guide has a job.
  • Hotels and restaurants are available in all price ranges. During a festival, such as the Leddet festival at Christmas, it is certainly advisable to book well in advance.
  • Lalibela can be reached in different ways. The usual route is by road. The last 76 kilometres are bad and unpaved. There are buses from several major cities.
  • By domestic flight there are 5 flights every day from Addis Ababa. The price can vary between €100 and €300. If you have booked an international flight with Ethiopian Airlines, you will get a discount on the domestic flights.
Worshipper asleep in Northern Ethiopia