The Northern Circuit


Map of Ethiopia showing Lalibela in red

Kibran – Northern Circuit Attractions

Introduction to Lalibela

In the heart of Ethiopia, amid postcard-perfect mountainside scenery, rests the sacred town of Lalibela.  Roha, as it was originally called, was the capital of the Zagwe dynasty for around 300 years. The town was renamed “Lalibela”, in honor of its monarch, who was responsible for the building of the 11 monolithic churches at the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th centuries. He named it New Jerusalem. The catalyst for building this sacred place was the Muslim conquests, which halted pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Lalibela flourished after the decline of the Aksumite empire.

The site is acknowledged as being one of the Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

There are two main clusters of churches, separated by the aptly-named Yordanos or „Jordan“ River. The eleventh  (and most visually impressive) church, Bete Giorgis, lies away from the others and can only be accessed via a tunnel.

Each church has its own unique style, but all are carved out of the bedrock. In some intances trenches were excavatated to isolate a solid granite block. Once isolated, these monolithic blocks were chiseled downwards, inch by inch, creating windows, doors, arches, passages and drainage ditches. Some even have openings to catacombs and hermit caves. Other churches were carved into the cliff face and in the instance of Bete Denaghel, the church was carved partially to incorporate an existing cave.

Where most of the Lalibela churches served as places of worhip from the outset, it is believed that two – Bete Gabriel Rafael and Bete Mercurios, were originally built to serve as royal dwellings.

Aside from the awe-inspiring churches of Lalibela, the town is attractive, charming and friendly. Two-story rondavels – Lasta Tukuls, constructed from the local red earth, dot the tranquil countryside. Time appears to stand still here, with locals going about their daily business, seemingly unaware of the rat race that is happening in other parts of the world. To this day Lalibela is regarded a place of pilgrimage and devotion, playing an important part in the religious activity of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Good to Know

Recommended length of stay: 2-3 Nights

  • (1-2 nights exploring the churches & architecture + coffee ceremony)
  • Extra day for hike with mules up to Asheton Maryam

Getting There: Domestic flights daily to and from Addis and other major towns

Major Religion: Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity

UNESCO World Heritage Site

Where to Stay when in Lalibela, Ethiopia


Mezena Lodge

Set in a 16-acre countryside estate, east of the town of Lalibela, eco-friendly Mezena Lodge & Spa is truly a haven-within-a-haven of nature and tranquility.  The top-notch accommodation comprises 30 stylish, spacious bungalows, all with private verandas that offer views of the idyllic scenery. Facilities include free Wi-Fi, an all-day-dining restaurant, bar, curio shop and spa (sauna & steam room), conference centre and swimming pool. With the Lalibela Airport only 30-minutes’ drive away, Mezena Lodge & Spa is very conveniently located.

Maribela Hotel

Maribela, which means “Lalibela” in Amharic, is located in the hills of Lalibela. Inspired by the legacy of King Lalibela, the facilities at Maribela are designed to offer guests royal treatment. The rooms are spacious and modern, with stylish ensuite bathrooms, and you can look forward to all the modern conveniences of a luxury hotel. These include free Wi-Fi, same day laundry service and around-the-clock housekeeping and front desk service. Designed for ultimate relaxation, you can soak up the exquisite view from the day bed on your private balcony. The restaurant menu offers traditional local fare as well as a selection of continental dishes.

Travel Tips

Good to Know

  • 11 churches in the town are named after the King.
  • There are two season: dry season from October to May and rainy season from mid of June to mid of September.
  • When entering the churches, the clothes have to be “respectful”, covering enough of the body. Shoes must always be removed before entering churches and mosques

Top tourist sites to visit when in Lalibela

Key Attractions


The church names all have the prefix of Bete, which means “house” both in the ancient languages of Ge’ez and the more modern Amharic. The churches, or betes, are connected by subterranean passageways and arranged in two main groups: 

The north-western cluster comprises six churches, positioned one behind the next:  Bete Golgotha, Bete Mikael, Bete Mariam, Bete Meskel, Bete Danaghel and Bete Medhane Alem. Bete Medhane Alem, the largest, is built like a Greek temple. In a corner are three empty graves symbolically dug for biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Bete Golgotha contains the tomb of Lalibela. 

The south-eastern cluster is made up of  four churches, which are more irregular in design than the north-western cluster: Bete Emanuel, Bete Mercuiros, Bete Abba Libanos and Bete Gabriel-Rufa’el. Bete Emanuel’s elaborate exterior is much praised by art historians. Legend tells that Bete Abba Libanos was built overnight by Lalibela’s wife, Meskel Kebre, assisted by a group of angels. Several of the individual churches in this cluster are thought to have been secular in origin, and some predate the reign of King Lalibela by five centuries. 

The eleventh Lalibela church, Bete Giyorgis, arguably the most elegant and majestic of all the Lalibela churches, lies somewhat isolated in the southwest part of the village on a sloping rock terrace. It can only be reached via a tunnel. Recognizable by its cuciform shape, Bete Giyorgis is probably the most phographed of the Lalibela churches.  



Bete Mariam or „House of Mary“ may be small, but it is the most exquisitely decorated of all the Lalibela churches. The church has some fascinating and unique features. On its eastern wall there are two rows of three windows. The upper set is thought to represent the Holy Trinity; the lower cruciform set is believed to symbolise the crucifiction of Christ, with the two sinners on either side. The lower left window has an opening above it, symbolizing that the sinner, once he had repented of his sins, was forgiven and received into heaven. The lower right window represents the unrepentent sinner, who descended into damnation. On the western facade there is a bas-relief of St George fighting the dragon. The ceilings and upper walls of the chapel are covered in very early frescoes and the columns and arches feature beautiful carvings. 


Bete Medhani Alem or „House of the Savior of the World“ is built like a Greek temple and is believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world. It is completely surrounded by square columns and has an additional twenty-eight collosal columns supporting the roof. Inside, it has five aisles. Three empty graves have been symbolically dug for the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Issac and Jacob.


Bete Denagel or „House of Virgins“ is a semi-monolithic church and the most roughly-hewn of all the Lalibela churches. The church has no windows and is partly a grotto church, and partially carved out of the rock. The facade of Bete Degagel is level with the courtyard of Bete Mariam. 


Bete Maskal or „House of the Cross“ is a grotto church, carved into the northern wall of the courtyard at Bete Maryam. Inside the chapel, the narrow gallery is divided by a row of four pillars. Carved windows contain various crosses, such as Maltese and Greek.    


Bete Golgotha or „House of Golgotha“ and Bete Mikael or „House of Michael“ are not counted as two separate churches, as they are served by one entrance, which lies along a trench at the southern end of Bete Maryam. Bete Mikael, featuring many relief-carved crosses, serves as a passage into Bete Golgotha. These twin churches are semi-monolithic i.e. they are not completely separated from the main rock. 

Within Bete Golgotha, the Selassie Chapel is regarded as the holiest shrine in Lalibela. It contains a relief carving of angels representing the Tomb of Christ and beneath a moveable stone covering lies the tomb of King Lalibela. Bete Golgotha’s treasures include some of the earliest examples of Ethiopian Christian art as well as life-size relieve carvings of the twelve apostles, four of which re visible. The remaining 8 are within the Selassie Chapel, which may only be entered by priests.



Bete Emanuel or „House of Emmanuel“ is a beautifully-carved three-story church of typical ancient Axumite architectural style, with projecting and recessing walls. It is believed that Bete Emanuel was formerly the royal chapel. Its exterior walls are decorated with ornate carvings and windows. 


Bete Qeddus Mercoreus or „House of St. Mercoreos“ is a large, irregular-shaped church that does not conform to the conventional norms in terms of its orientation and form. Restoration to damange that was caused over the ages has not done the church justice, but inside one can still view breathtaking murals including one depicting The Passion of Christ. It is believed that some of the original art from Bete Mercoreus has been taken to the National Museum in Addis Ababa, for safekeeping. 

Reaching Bete Mercoreus can be an adventure. If you are up for the challenge, you can opt to enter via a 35-meter narrow tunnel though the rock. Walking in the pitch-dark, one hand touching the cold stone ceiling, another hand touching the wall (to guide you), you can move forward slowly, pondering the brevity of life and what lies beyond. The pathway is referred to by some as „The Pathway to Paradise“, as the darkness symbolises hell. Emerging into the sunlight after this experience can leave one feeling very elated.  


Bete Abba Libanos or „House of Abbot Libanos“ is a rectangular church, carved horizontally into a steep cliff face. When beholding the church from the front, one gets the impression that the church was builit inside a cave, with the rock above creating the ceiling. A passageway is carved around the sides and back of the building. The church is linked to a structure called Bete Lehem or „The House of Bread“ 


Bete Gabriel Raphael or „House of the angels Gabriel and Raphael“ can be accessed via a narrow bridge which spans across a waterless moat. The long columns that make up the western façade are shaped in what has been referred to as Axumite style, due to the obvious resemblance to the tops of the obelisks found in the ancient city of Axum. The carved windows display the same shape, giving the building a sense of palatial grandeur. The courtyard houses a well and an underground cistern. The church is made up of two parts, named after the archangels Gabriel and Raphael respectively. Scholars speculate about the original purpose of this building. Some say that it was once an ancient palace, linked to a royal bakery. Church services are still conducted in Bete Gabriel. 


Bete Lehem or „House of Holy Bread“ is the last church in this cluster. A carved stone tunnel leads from Bete Emanuel to Mercurios and then on to Bete Lehem. Named after the town where Christ was born, this humble chapel offers no obvious adornments. Its conical facade wraps around a circular room, featuring a tree trunk as it central pillar.



Bete Giyorgis or „House of St George“ is most recognizable for its cruficorm shape, which has become the postcard photo for Lalibela. Located on the northern side of the Jordan River, but further downstream of the northwestern cluster of churches, Bete Giyorgis lies on its own, cradled within its rock crib. This masterpiece of architecture stands 15 meters high and has three levels, perfectly carved into a sloping rock terrace. Inside the chapel light filters in from the windows, illuminating the large crosses on the ceiling. Two 800-year-old olive  wood boxes, believed to have been carved by King Lalibela himself, hold priceless church treasures. The walls surrounding the church contain chambers, holding mummified corpses of monks


The monastery of Na‘akuto Le’ab, built by Lalibela’s predecessor, is located six kilometers outside the town of Lalibela and accessible by car. The monastery is built in a natural cave, and believed to the site of a much older shrine. The red-brick building inside the cave was built by Empress Zewditu. The church has a treasured selection of ancient religious paintings, manuscrips and memorabilia.


Hike up to the Asheton Maryam, which is situated on the top of a mountain. You can be driven part of the way and then have a 1 hour scenic hike, with mules, to the top of the mountains. A picnic lunch can be provided for you to enjoy.  The route covers some spectacular mountain scenery before climbing a staircase chiseled into the rock face of the mountain, through a narrow gully, and finally emerging at the church itself. This monastery is also associated with King Na’akuto La’ab, who most probably founded it and may even be buried in the chapel. It is best to set out in the cool of the early morning and return about midday. The path is rather steep in parts and strewn with loose stones. The maximum altitude is almost 3,000 meters.


For those living in and around Lalibela the weekly Saturday market is the main trade event of the week. Amid the organized chaos you can shop for treasures whilst experiencing authentic Ethiopian highlands lifestyle and culture.  Vendors from the countryside beyond Lalibela journey for hours, some using pack donkeys to transport their wares; others carry their merchandise on their backs, or pile it atop their heads. Makeshift stalls are erected using Eucalyptus poles and tarpaulins or locally-made cloth, to protect the products and their sellers from the harsh sun. Some use umbrellas, but others brave the elements, rather using their tarpaulins as a ground cover on which to display their goods. Bags brimming with grains, feature prized teff, from which the staple flatbread injera is prepared. There are dried beans, lentils and split peas. Piles of freshly unearthed ginger & garlic, fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables – organically grown; and fragrant piles of dried chilies, spices and herbs. Delicious golden honey, fresh eggs and green coffee beans add to the selection. You will also find livestock – mainly goats and chickens. Cotton fabrics, colourful hand-woven baskets, household wares and clothing. Last but not least, look out for ready-prepared injera, stacked high within the traditional woven baskets with their conical lids.



Although it is easy to experience a traditional coffee ceremony throughout Ethiopia, there is an added dimension of authenticity when experiencing it in the rural parts of the country.


Located in a humble brick building, above the XO Restaurant, the Lalibela Cultural Center offers a small but valuable collection of ethnographic and religious artifacts and manuscripts. The information panels give an excellent account of Lalibela’s history and archaeology, with some fascinating finds from the various archaeological sites around Lalibela contributing to the wow factor of the experience.

Local Attractions to Visit in Lalibela

Lalibela Area Photo Gallery


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