For over 500 years, travelers have raved about the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Francisco Alvares, a 16th-century Portuguese explorer and writer described them as “edifices, the like of which – and so many – cannot be found anywhere else in the world.” But, of course, Petra’s rock-carved monuments may be far better known. Still, Lalibela’s are unusual in several ways, not least because so many are found in such a small area, with several seemingly freestanding and all unusually refined architecturally. Moreover, Lalibela’s masons, benefiting from 1,000 years of architectural know-how passed down through the generations since the days of the ancient Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum, indeed knew what they were doing.
Lalibela was the capital of the Zagwe Dynasty during the 12th and 13th centuries and was named after the king credited with the construction of the churches. One local legend says that King Lalibela was exiled to Jerusalem by his usurping half-brother and was inspired by the churches he saw there. Upon returning to claim his kingdom, he vowed to build a new holy city accessible to all Ethiopian people. Unlike Petra, Lalibela remains a flourishing religious center. Pilgrims flock from miles around to visit its dozen or so churches – and countless others in the surrounding area – or attend one of its vibrant religious festivals. Hermits, clutching old rosaries and ancient studying parchment, inhabit tiny holes in the rock. Robed priests, deacons, and monks float down the dimly lit passageways that connect the churches, as they have done for centuries. From hidden crypts and grottoes drifts the sound of chanting, and in the deep, cool recesses of the interiors, the smell of incense and beeswax candles still pervades.
Rising out of rose-red sandstone in a hidden valley is the city of Petra, Jordan’s top attraction. The impressive site was built in the 3rd century BC by the Nabataeans, Arab traders who created an empire based on the control of the highly lucrative trade in frankincense. The city comprises tombs, temples, storerooms, and stables cut out of the rock.
Firmly featuring on every traveler’s itinerary to the Middle East since the days of the Grand Tour, Petra is one of the most visited sites in the Middle East. But unfortunately, the tourism village that has grown up around Petra threatens to outsize the ancient city itself.
Though a trip to Petra is worthwhile at any time, try to visit in the off-season (outside the main European holidays) and avoid weekends and local school holidays above all. Arriving at the site early in the morning will also give you a head start on the tour groups.
Getting There and Around
Flights go from Addis Ababa to Lalibela’s airport, 14 miles (23 km) from the town and site. Local hotels and travel agencies offer airport transfer services. Buses link Lalibela with Woldia, the nearest large town, 75 miles (120 km) to the east.
Where to Eat
Little-developed Lalibela may not boast the richest of dining scenes, but a handful of restaurants here offer wholesome home cooking at affordable prices. Try Helen Hotel (tel. +251 39 00 98), which also brews its tej (the famous Lalibela honey mead). Amaris – or Ethiopian minstrels – perform here regularly in the evenings.
Where to Stay
The Jerusalem Guest House (tel. +251 36 00 47), set on pleasant grounds, offers simple but comfortable rooms with balconies. The restaurant is designed like a tukul (traditional Ethiopian hut).
When to Go
It’s worth timing your visit to coincide with one of Ethiopia’s colorful religious festivals, the most famous of which – Timkat (Ethiopian Christmas) and Leddet (Epiphany) – occur in January. Otherwise, September boasts good weather and green scenery.
Budget per Day for Two
US$50–75 depending on where you stay.
Much mystery still surrounds the rock-carved churches of Lalibela. Exactly how, when, and by whom they were built remains unknown, though scholars believe it would have taken a workforce of some 40,000 to make them. Many Ethiopians believe that angels were partly responsible.