Situated in the highlands about 695 kilometers north of Addis Ababa, the glorious rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are not to be missed. These groups of eleven monolithic and semi-monolithic structures were carved directly into the stone of the mountainside at least 800 years ago. This complex boasts the largest monolithic church in the world, a maze of passageways and tunnels, intricately carved reliefs, and fabulous examples of icon paintings. Churches such as Emanuel, St. George, St. Mary, and Medhane Alem were built by carving a massive rectangular trench around a solid stone block. This solid block was then hollowed out, leaving interior columns, windows, reliefs, etc. Other churches were carved into the stone but leaving either one side or the roof attached to the surrounding stone. Not only the craftsmanship but also the sheer sizes of the churches are stunning. Medhane Alem, the largest, sits on 800 square meters and St. George is 15 meters deep.
The churches of Lalibela are not just historical sites; they still function as important centers of worship for members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This is living history that the priests, monks, nuns, and Christians of Lalibela have kept alive with their devotions, hymns, and celebrations for hundreds of years. Although there are many pilgrimages to Lalibela every year, thousands of Ethiopians travel to Lalibela every Christmas to spend the day in the proximity of these holy churches. The rock floors and pathways are incredibly smooth after having been worn down by millions of feet over the centuries. Visitors are required to remove their shoes upon entering the churches.
Rock-hewn churches are scattered around northern Ethiopia, but Lalibela’s are the most impressive and are included on UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. No visitor to Ethiopia should miss them.