The great pyramids at Giza, EgyptElephants crossing the Zambezi river in Mana Pools National Park world heritage site, ZimbabweThe great mosque in the Old Towns of Djenne world heritage site, MaliBlack and white ruffed lemur, Rainforests of the Atsinanana world heritage site, Madagascar

Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela - Ethiopia

Map showing the location of the Rock-hewn churches of Lalibela UNESCO world heritage site, Ethiopia

Website Category: Ancient Ethiopia  

Area: unknown   

Inscribed: 1978   

Criteria: (i)  a creative masterpiece (ii)  interchange of values (iii)  cultural tradition

Location and Values:  The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are located in a remote and mountainous area of northern Ethiopia, about 150 km east of Lake Tana.  There are 11 churches, each one carved out of solid rock and (in many cases) standing free in its own cavernous hole created through the excavation and removal of surrounding rock.  To reach the entrance of each church, people have to descend through a steep channel cut into the rock, or pass through a tunnel from a neighbouring church. The space inside each church is the result of excavating all the rock within, except a few sturdy pillars necessary to support the roof. 

The rock-hewn churches at Lalibela exemplify a building tradition that has been used in Ethiopia since the 6th and 7th centuries, but these churches are attributed to the 13th-century King Lalibela.  They demonstrate an extraordinary level of architectural detail in their construction, for example in the windows and doors which include ‘structural’ features that serve no function, and in the symbolism of the design and decoration.  Today, the churches are still very much alive, and a place of pilgrimage for many Ethiopians. 

Slideshow of the Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela:  This comprehensive slideshow includes pictures of many of the churches and their connecting paths and tunnels, with detailed studies of some of the design features cut into the rock.  Some examples of ancient religious art and manuscripts, maintained by the priests in each church are shown.  Some of the churches are in danger of disintegrating under the influence of natural weathering - since they are cut from relatively fragile, porous volcanic rock – so scaffolding has been erected recently to support a corrugated iron roof canopy where necessary.  This spoils the aesthetic values of the site, but has been deemed necessary by international experts.  In some cases older pictures are used here, recalling a time before such structures were erected.  The slideshow finishes with a picture of one of the unique round double-storey houses in use today and some landscape views of the wider area, showing it at its best just prior to harvest.

Slideshow of the Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela:

Comments and Impressions:  This is one of the ‘must-see’ sites of Africa.  Quite unlike anything elsewhere, it is a world apart, frozen in time.  Still comparatively little visited by outsiders because of its remote location, it is an extraordinary experience to rub shoulders (often literally) with pilgrims, priests and residents in a place that retains such authentic character.

Google Earth View:  To view satellite imagery of Lalibela on Google Earth, click here. This opens a new window, so when you are finished, just close the Google Earth page and you will be straight back here to continue browsing.

Links to other places featuring Ancient Ethiopia:   Fasil Ghebbi Aksum  I  Harar 

Other Links:     Official UNESCO Site Details

Priest displaying some of the distinctive Coptic crosses at the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela UNESCO world heritage site, Ethiopia Architectural features of the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela (a UNESCO world heritage site, Ethiopia) The isolated monolith of St George's church (Bet Giyorgis) is excavated below ground level and one of the most distinctive of the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela (a UNESCO world heritage site, Ethiopia) A heavy studded wooden door to one of the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela (a UNESCO world heritage site, Ethiopia)



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