The excavation of the churches is something of a mystery – some sources estimate that in the order of 40,000 people would have been required to carve them – so it’s not surprising that their origin has been clouded in legend.
Arguably the most impressive historical site anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela all lie within a roughly triangular 15ha area at the southern end of the town centre. There are two main clusters of churches, separated by a non-perennial rock-cut stream known rather grandiosely as the Jordan River (one of many place names that support the notion King Lalibela conceived of the church as a kind of ‘New Jerusalem’). The main entrance and ticket office is on the town side of the northern cluster, which comprises seven churches and chapels whose sense of cohesion does rather support the notion that it was planned as a whole, quite possibly by King Lalibela as the legends suggest. The southern cluster, comprising five churches, lies about 250m further southeast, and comes across as more hotchpotch in design (indeed, several of its individual churches are thought to have been secular in origin and some might predate the reign of Lalibela by five centuries). The triangle’s western apex is formed by the iconic Bet Giyorgis, which stands in majestic isolation some 300m from the other churches, on the east side of the main road between the town centre and the Roha Hotel.
Lalibela is usually at its most compelling and spiritually rewarding in the early morning (ideally around 05.30), when masses are held at many of the churches and most tourists are still in bed or having breakfast. Most reliable for a large turnout at morning mass is Saturday, or any feast days associated with a particular saint, and any guide or hotel receptionist should be able to tell you which of the churches is likely to be your best bet on any given day. Once morning mass is over, tourists increasingly start to outnumber bona fide worshippers, and the churches start to feel like they are maintained less as active shrines of worship than as tourist attractions.
Before visiting any of the churches, you need to pop into the official ticket office (500m west and downhill from the main square along the road to the Roha Hotel) and pay your entrance fee, which is valid for up to five days. Be sure to get a receipt, as you will be asked to produce it at every church you visit. The ticket office is also the best place to organise a guide, assuming that you want one and don’t have one already. Having paid your fee, you’re free to walk where you like and photograph what you like anywhere in the complex (with the obvious exception of the Holy of Holies at the back of each church). It is, however, customary to slip a few birr to any person you put centre frame. Also, note that there are toilet facilities at the ticket office as you enter the northern cluster, but there are no toilets near the southern cluster or Bet Giyorgis.