Lalibela’s 900-year old rock-hewn churches have been built in two distinct groupings, one group in the north and the other in the east. You can visit both in a single day, but it is probably better to give yourself more time to fully absorb the wonder of this place. The churches are connected by a series of ancient passageways and alleys, which are atmospheric places to wander.
The history of Lalibela is palpable. Everywhere you look there are stone corridors and staircases rubbed smooth by the passage of pilgrims over centuries of devoted worship. Buildings are carved with simple, early Christian symbols, and turning a corner can bring you face-to-face with a group of worshippers, in a scene which could have been witnessed at any time over the last 900 years.
A visit to the churches is both full of surprise and a little disorienting. In true Indian Jones style, the churches of Bete Medhane Alem and Beta Maryam are linked by a tunnel, carved several feet underground out of solid rock. You can’t but admire the enormous effort which has gone into building this New Jerusalem.
Set amidst beautiful rolling countryside, this mountainous region provides the perfect backdrop to such an ancient and mysterious town. Yet, despite all the history, Lalibela remains a small and relaxed place largely off the beaten track. Tourism has made an impact here, but remains low key and largely unobtrusive…for how long remains to be seen.