Uncharted Backpacker

Ethiopia’s Northern Circuit – Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela and Mekele

Lalibela and Mekele – Ethiopia

Ethiopia: The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela

Continued From Ethiopia Part One: Addis Ababa and Lake Tana

From Lake Tana, the road goes east through majestic valleys to Lalibela. The road conditions are some of the worst in the entire country of Ethiopia. I arrived late in the evening; after about nine hours of bumpy buses, breakdowns, and coffee stops. Luckily, my hotel was located close to where the bus had dropped me off. I chose to stay at the Alef Paradise Hotel. Room rate was only 15 dollars per night, and was within walking distance of the churches.


Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, Includes Frankincense, Popcorn and the Best Coffee Ever

I awoke in the early hours of the morning. I had heard that at St. George’s Cathedral, there were morning prayers. Walking in the dark through this area is a daunting experience. The roads are dirt, and there is very few buildings indicating a town of any kind here. Just as sun was rising, I stumbled upon Lalibela’s masterpiece: St. George’s Cathedral, also known as Bet Gyorgis. This church, cut from a single piece of stone, stands 15m tall and is said to have been built with the help of angels in the night.


Early Morning Prayer at St. George’s Cathedral

Prayers resonated from the chambers below. The smell of frankincense wafted from the church windows. Pilgrims stepped out from the surrounding bushes, donning their white blanket-like Orthodox robes. Close-by, there is a hill that climbs just above the church. From the top and at sunrise, I sat and watched hundreds of pilgrims and worshipers surround the outer rim of the church in order to listen as the priest below sang stories of the past.


When the chanting and prayers subsided, I decided to see the inside of the church myself. At the southern edge of the church, there is a stone tunnel that takes you deep down into the central chamber. Candles were lit along the stone walls. Priests brush past you, chanting on their way out.


The Feet of the Dead are Seen From the Cathedral Exterior Wall

Upon arriving at the opening of the main chamber, I was awe-struck by the absolute power this church sends into you. Seeing this church for the first time is a life changing experience. As you walk around the church itself, priests move about and chant while swinging baskets of burning frankincense. Elderly men sit, curled up, reading their leather bound bibles. The feet of the dead poke out from the wall burial chambers, reminding you of how holy this place is.


After I asked the head priest’s permission to enter, he ushered me inside the church. The inside was rather dark. The floors were covered with worn out carpets, and the walls blackened from candle smoke. As you stand inside the church you can truly feel the energy pulsating through you. This place is very special, and not many words can be used to describe how it draws you to it.


Leaving St. George’s Cathedral, I walked to the north-western group of churches. Here is where the church guards will hunt you down to make you pay the 50 dollar fee. Do not let this stop you, as these churches are worth every cent of that fee.


Head Priest Inside St. George’s Cathedral

You can spend hours wandering around the churches. Most of them are connected by dark candle lit tunnels that delve deep beneath the earth. Every church here is unique and offers a great look into the Ethiopian faith. I spent three days wandering the church chambers. Ask permission before entering any of these churches. By doing so, you will also be guided by the church priest who will give a good description of the history and folklore of each church.


Lalibela’s Northern Cathedral Sector

Outside of the church grounds is Lalibela’s Saturday Market. If you time it right and are here on a Saturday, this market is well worth a visit. The farmers from the surrounding area bring in their goods to sell, and livestock is often traded as well.


Local Tailor at Lalibela’s Market

My last evening in Lalibela, I ventured from my hotel to town. It’s about a three kilometer walk, but in the dark it’s easy to get lost, which is exactly what I did. Panicking, as I had no clue where I was, I waited for the next car to pass by. As luck would have it, it was a UN vehicle, on the way to town. I hitched a ride. The occupants of the vehicle asked me what my plans were this evening. I explained to them I had heard there was an epic Tej Bet in town that I wanted to check out.


Now Lalibela’s Torpido Tej Bet is not just any regular Tej Bet. The music is pulsating, the crowds lively and the interior decked out in the typical Ethiopian style. It is, quite simply, the most amazing Tej Bet in the whole of Ethiopia. Knowing this, the UN workers decided to join me for a night of awkward shoulder dancing and honey wine nonsense. If you go to Lalibela, do not miss out on the Torpido Tej.


The Entrance to St. George’s Cathedral

Mekele – Hair Raising Adventure and the Secret Churches of Tigray

The mini bus from Lalibela to Mekele is, to put it gently, an acquired taste. Locals keep the windows shut for fear of catching tuberculosis. The van slowly stuffs its innards with an unlimited amount of people, goats and chickens. Inside, the heat rises. Everyone and everything begins to cook. From the chickens under the seat to the butter the women in front of you puts in her hair, it’s a very un-pleasant experience.


Outskirts of Mekele on way to the Churches

13 hours passed by like this. I tried to crack the window open for only an inch for air, but the vans residents would not have it. I was slowly suffocating while my bones were being rattled to death. To make the experience more enjoyable, the driver blared his favourite three Ethiopian songs on repeat for the entire bus ride. The only thing saving me from being driven to insanity was peering out of the dusty window, into a fairy-tale-like landscape.

The unfortunate reality of being born into the first world is that, when traveling, you must learn to do without the comforts we take for granted. This is the real world. It’s cruel, difficult and harsh. Most fear this. Don’t let it. Overcome the challenges and you will be rewarded with riches beyond imagination.


The Incredibly Scary Climb to Abuna Yemata Guh

Mekele itself is nothing noteworthy. It’s a dusty frontier town on the edge of the Danakil Depression. One of the hottest, most inhospitable places on planet Earth. North of Mekele, you will find the Churches of Tigray. They are similar in some ways to those in Lalibela, except that these churches present a challenge to overcome in order to reveal their secrets.


The Way to Abuna Yemata Guh

The owner of my hotel in Mekele arranged for transport to the churches the next day. The journey to first church took us hours into the countryside; up the slope of a steep mountain. The church’s name was Abuna Yemata Guh. The car pulled up in front of a sheer cliff side.


The Key Keeper of Abuna Yemata Guh

“We have arrived,” my driver yelled excitedly as he pointed up the cliff face. “We will see if you’re a man today”, he said as he climbed out of the car.

A few other Ethiopian men showed up and explained that they were the guardians of the church. They also know the only safe passage way up the mountain. Of course this does not come without a fee, you must pay them and it’s not always cheap. My tip is simply to not act too interested and say you want to go to other churches. They will lower the price then.


Orthodox Murals Inside Abuna Yemata Guh

Price negotiated, the priest’s master key in hand, it began. Climbing up this cliff you will see scattered human bones from people who have either come here to die or, as my driver explained, have fallen while climbing. It is a terrifying experience. There is no easy way to put this, it was quite possibly the scariest climb of my life.


Key Keeper and Apprentice Priest Telling Tales of The Walls

The first wall is not too bad. But the second and last wall are a complete 90 degree angle with only small finger holes to pull you up. No ropes, no safety. You must have nerves of steel to pull yourself to the top. When you get to the top you are overcome with some of Ethiopia’s most incredible scenery. All the feelings of accomplishment soon fade when you realize you still have to walk the wall to the church. The wall is about a 10 m ledge walk, with a cliff face on one side and a 200 m drop to your death on the other. The bottom of the ledge is about 2 feet wide. It is, in fact, just as scary as the climb up.


View from Abuna Yemata Guh

Stumbling into the entrance of the church was exhilarating. My heart was pounding, the palms of my hands sweating profusely, all while I was having a mild panic attack. The priest fumbled with the large gothic-looking key and opened the large door to the cave church. The inside of the cave was covered in colorful murals. The priest showed me a few bibles he claimed were over 500 hundred years old. Their tattered leather covers were worn from countless years of use in ceremony. This place is incredibly special. Not just the church itself, but the death defying experience you must endure in order to get here.


Leaving the mountain with a new-found energy, feeling like I could conquer any challenge life throws at me, we set off to a few more churches. The other churches we saw this day were also interesting. To be honest though, none of them left such an impression in my mind like Abuna Yemata Guh did.


Before sunset, we climbed a steep mountain to Abuna Abraham. Not a scary climb like that morning’s events; this climb was full of amazing scenery as far as the eye could see. The church is built into the side of the mountain. The inside is filled with large pillars that seemingly prevent the roof of the cave from collapsing. Inside there are chambers you are not allowed to enter; only the high priest may enter them.

Sunset from here was stunning. The sky changed into a plethora of colors over the desert landscape. The expanse was dotted with small villages. People began to light fires to keep warm in the cool evening air.


View From Abuna Abraham

 Climbing Abuna Yemata Guh Video 

Useful Information

Location – Lalibela, Mekele – Northern Ethiopia

Costs – Lalibela entry fee 1000 BIR/50 USD for five days. Tigray Churches each church varies so bring your bargaining skills. Average church is around 20 USD for group entry.

Tips – Don’t accept the first price the priests and guardians of the church give you. Be polite and ask for a discount. If you visit many churches in one day, the price can really add up.

Recommended Guide Book – Lonely Planet EthiopiaLonely Planet Ethiopian Amharic Phrasebook

Transport – From town to town use the mini bus. In Tigray renting a car costs around 50 USD for the day. Need a flight here? Check out Momondo!

Recommended Tour Company – Ethiopia is very possible on your own. I traveled here without a tour, but a lot of the country is very difficult to travel. If you are traveling solo, or not very experienced I recommend G Adventures as they do some pretty amazing tours here.


About author View all posts Author website

Stephen Gollan

Stephen Gollan

Uncharted Backpacker is a glimpse at the past eleven years of globetrotting I have done. Now at over ninety countries I share my travel knowledge for you so you too can travel the world and see what wonders it has to offer.

2 CommentsLeave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.