Africa’s best historical sites – Lalibela

Posted on 24 June 2020

Our Land Rover ate the kilometres over endless mountain passes north of Addis Ababa. The earth opened in chasms on either side; millet and wheat fields pimpled with haystacks filled the valleys below.

Dedicated to the Virgin Mary (who is deeply venerated in Ethiopia), Bet Maryam Church has a constant stream of pilgrims entering its hallowed space.

At last we reached Lalibela, home to the rock-hewn churches: the unofficial Eighth Wonder of the World. These 800-year-old monoliths are not ancient relics preserved as museums; they’re living places of devotion with pilgrims arriving every day to pray.

On saints’ days, the churches are packed with worshippers, leaning on their prayer sticks or prostrating themselves before the altar, the priests resplendent in gold and red. Services last all night, accompanied by drumming, chanting and tolling bells.

We descended stairs into a hole cut by masons and followed tunnels leading through church precincts. Perhaps the most beautiful structure of all is Bet Maryam. It’s believed to have been the first built in Lalibela and is the most popular among pilgrims.

Inside the church it was cool and dark. A boy read from an illuminated Bible while bearded priests stood over him. His voice, chanting in ancient Ge’ez, echoed through the space. The paintings and icons depicted biblical stories, and monks drew back curtains to reveal vellum books and the intricate silver fretwork of hand crosses. It was a scene that had not changed in eight centuries.

Plan your trip

Stay here

Harbe Hotel is clean and comfortable, and less than a kilometre from the churches. From R450* pp sharing.

Do this

Visiting the church complex costs about R700* pp.

*Prices subject to change



This post is adapted from an article first published in the April 2019 issue of Getaway magazine.
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All prices correct at publication, but are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please check with them before booking or buying.


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