Rock-Hewn Churches, Ethiopia

While some people spend unsparing time and money building big churches on local government approved plots, it is high time we appreciated people who spent time and their wealth designing and caving in and out rock-hewn churches.
Bulgaria has her share of such rock-hewn buildings, but Africa, in particular, can boast of her share of such buildings located in Ethiopia near the Horn of Africa.

Image by Heiss


Since Queen of Sheba’s visit to Israel under King Solomon, Ethiopians have followed the religious aspects of the Jews in Israel. The ancient remains of the palace of Queen Sheba lie in Aksum, which used to be the capital city of Ethiopia. That is why it is believed today that this ancient town still hosts the replica of the Ark of God as per God’s instructions to Moses. When the dynasty of the Queen of Sheba’s Amhara Kingdom shifted four hundred kilometres southwards due to Moslems’ upheavals, Lalibela became the new capital of the Amhara rulers.


By the 12th Century, the new King of Lalibela undertook a pilgrimage to Israel, the Holy Land. While there, the King saw a vision in which a Spiritual Being instructed him to build churches from a rock. When he doubted about his capability to undertake such a mammoth task, he was told that spiritual beings would assist him. Thus the strange strategy of building the churches from top to bottom was put in place. For the King believed that since God had told him to build churches out of the mountainsides, he would be given the ability to do it.


For some of these rock-hewn churches, the builders believed that they would work during day-time while angels continued to build during night time. Unbelievably, these churches were built from the top going downwards. Eventually, none of the builders knew that 900 years later after the completion of these churches, important people like the 42nd President of the United States of America, Bill Clinton would be interested in touring such sites like the Lalibela rock-hewn churches. The spiral staircases in such buildings would be considered by some tourists as an “eighth wonder of the world.”


One of the coincidental benefits of the rock-hewn churches was to hide expensive artefacts made of gold which were stored in these buildings. Marauding groups were rampant at that time. The Ark of God which was a treasured artefact had to be protected at all costs. The other reason was to hide their treasured religious activities from the extremists, Moslems’ Jihad harassment.


The town of Aksum, which is about four hundred metres from Lalibela in Ethiopia, boasts of one of its rock-hewn churches hosting what is believed to be the actual ARK OF GOD which the Israelites carried with them in their desert journey to the Promised Land. Only special High Priests are allowed to approach the special room called the Holy of Holies. Such religious men do not mix or socialize with ordinary people but are restricted to the grounds of the church until their death.


In all these rock-hewn churches, the Priest-in-Charge under the Orthodox Church carries the cross which every congregant in attendance longs to touch for special blessings and healing powers. The cross reminds them of the death and resurrection of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ whose healing powers are still fresh in their minds.


It is also believed that wedding ceremonies that take place in these underground churches carry special blessings which make separation during the lifetime of the couples impossible. Therefore, it is not surprising that many long to have their wedding vows before the priests in these rock-hewn churches. Some bridegrooms and brides travel from every corner of Ethiopia to say their vows before the priests in these churches. It is high time people came from all over the world to have their marriages blessed in these rock-hewn churches.


As mentioned earlier concerning President Bill Clinton’s visit, people travel from all continents of the world to admire such unusual architectural structures and their religious activities. The priests themselves say that they eat better when visitors from all over the world come to witness their religious activities. One can now confidently say that it is not only the priests who have benefitted from the influx of tourists but the whole community of about thirty thousand inhabitants of Lalibela and the whole nation of Ethiopia at large.


All visitors to this tourist attraction will not fail to see the co-operation that exists between the aged and the youth. Getting in and out of these rock-hewn churches involve the descent and ascent of twenty to fifty meters. Therefore, the youth feel compelled and honoured to escort the aged in their quest to attend religious services taking place.


Saint George is the most attractive rock-hewn churches and its structure appears in the form of a cross. It is impressive looking both in and outside the building. You cannot visit these monolithic churches (hewn from one large body of rock) without entering this building because all tour guides will not miss it at all. Its elegance makes you forget that you have entered an underground building.

Image by D Mz


Some names of other monolithic churches apart from St George are:

Bel Golgotha in which, it is believed, the body of King Lalibela lies; Bet Denagel; St Mary also known traditionally as Bet Maryam; Bet Medhane houses six monolithic churches and is considered the biggest such church in the world. Last, but not the least, the Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam.


Apart from the rock-hewn churches in Aksum, the Lalibela churches can be reached by air which is the most convenient way from Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. They are situated 645 kilometres away from Addis Ababa.

If you are going to visit Lalibela from outside Ethiopia or Africa as a whole, one inexpensive way of reaching Ethiopia is to get onto one of the international airlines like Lufthansa, Emirates, Qatar, British or Ethiopian Airways itself and reach the capital city, Addis Ababa. From there, Ethiopian Airways has flights to Lalibela daily. This is many ways cheaper than flying directly to Lalibela using international flights.


One of the festivities you should include in your calendar when visiting Lalibela occurs in January. Many tourists enjoy witnessing the “Timkat” festival on January 19th
culminating in the feast of St Michael, the Archangel on the 20th of January. This festival, also known as Epiphany, is celebrated all over the world. It is a ritual of reliving the actual baptism of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Jordan River. UNESCO also recognizes this ceremony in Ethiopia.


The rock-hewn churches have not gone unnoticed by UNESCO. In 1978 UNESCO recognized the unusual structure and put on some of them special roofing material to stop the weather rock erosion.


Lalibela rock-hewn churches should be visited by all people who love to see different architectural sites, religious and cultural festivals. Visits from such people may influence the turning of the Lalibela rock-hewn churches into the eighth wonder of the world. Enjoy your visit.

24 thoughts on “Rock-Hewn Churches, Ethiopia”

  1. This was a very interesting read, thank you.  I wasn’t aware that the supposed real Ark of God, existed today, let alone was housed in Ethiopia!  I figured it was one of those artifacts lost to time and no one can prove or disprove it existed.  And if they did have it, I figured someone would have moved it to Jerusalem by now. I guess those Rock-Hewn Churches really did well protecting artifacts as you mentioned because that one is still around.  I learn something new every single day!  Crazy!  Thanks again for this article.  

    1. The Rock-Hewn Churches are proof that what appears as a dream can be a reality. 
      And how else can you secure a much sought after relic than in an underground stone facility!
      Ethiopia is rich with religious history that one should travel to check out.
      Learning never ends indeed Jade. Thank you for your comment.

  2. How beautiful are the churches of old? To be able to maintain and continue to praise and have service is an honour. Thank you for showing us these places of worship. I would love to go to Africa and visit historical beauty. I enjoy your entire site. The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela would be a great witness to the power of God working in the world. 

    All the Best


    1. Mellisa, God has allowed mankind to build beautiful and time-enduring temples around the world. African and Ethiopia, in particular, presents its architectural beauty through the 11 rock-hewn churches. 
      I will be good of you to travel to check out these amazing places. 

  3. This is very interesting i did not know such places still existed. I thought they seized to exist in the olden days. And to think of it it is still a site that brings everybody together in honour of Christ.. Thank you for the insight

    1. Hi Joy, I am glad this story interests you. Numerous things are happening today with the help of technology that we tend to forget the great things that were done in the past.
      There is a limited expression of some of these wonderful historical sites that we may miss them. What I find interesting to me is the way they were built with such precision from the top down.
      I am sure they will stand for centuries to come for our future generations to visit and know about the power of determination when guided by God.
      Thank you for your comment.

  4. if i ever have the opportunity, i would love to visit this historical sites to worship in atleast one of these churches of the old. this is an artifact that i’m glad that unesco noticed. i never truly believed the ark of God existed talkless to think it is existing in a place like Ethiopia. truly, Africa is an embodiment of beauty and surely, this place would be included in the bucket list of places i wish to visit.

    1. Rodarrick, your desire to pray from these ancient churches is not an isolated one. You are part of a big number of people that approve of the Lalibela and the religious background it holds.

      I just hope you knock it off your bucket list sooner than later. 


  5. Never knew there was anything like a rock-hewn church at all but having read this, i can see now that there are a couple of them in Ethiopia. Their relevance cannot be underestimated seeing how they were used to protect good artefacts and eve one in Ethiopia hosted the ark of God. That, in my opinion, is fantastic, no wonder Bill Clinton was interested in it.

    1. You are right John, these churches are of great relevance especially to the Ethiopian orthodox pilgrims. During the Ethiopian Christmas in January, the churches can be so packed with pilgrims wearing white robes. To avoid the crowds, the most convenient time to visit is between October and March during the dry season.
      One of the interesting things to note is the preservation of culture. 

  6. Hello Edgar, this is one of the the most beautiful things I have seen today and I’m really amazed on seeing the structure. There haven’t been much of similar structures in term of how it is made lately, and that’s because of the regular development in technological devices. I am glad you noticed such wonderful building and shared this knowledge with all. I’ve never been to Ethiopia before, but i have visited some African countries. One day I’ll love to see this structure myself.

    1. Thank you Benson for your kind comments and for the assurance you give that one day, you will visit these monolithic rock-cut churches. The unique way the churches were built makes them a world heritage site. They have stood the test of time having been constructed over 8 centuries ago. 

  7. WOW! saying this is awesome would only be an understatement when compared to the amazement look I wore when I saw this post about rock-hewn churches. this is really worth exploring and i will try to visit a site such as this. To imagine the time it would take to create this is amazing and it is surely a beauty that anyone who beholds it would actually value the sight. Thanks

    1. Thank you Bella for your wonderful feedback about this post. I realise I too had the same feeling and desire to visit them the first time I got information about them which was like 5 years back. 
      These churches offer a unique experience that cannot be told in words but by a physical presence. I hope you too one day get to find time off your schedule to pay the Rock-Hewn churches a visit.

  8. Wow, this is so amazing, Rock hewn churches, if I hadn’t really read this article, I’ll find it hard to believe that they do exist maybe that’s because I didn’t research about them but I must say it’s a really interesting one. I’ve been wondering how they went about it then because I’m sure they don’t have the kind of technology we have now, it won’t be an easy task for them I guess. This article really made me understand some things, that God speaks I’m miraculous ways, and that He will always do whatever he say He’ll do. I really wish to visit Ethiopia sometimes, it’ll really be a great experience. Thanks for sharing this article, I enjoyed reading through.

    1. What we see in pictures and online videos pales to what we physically see with our own eyes, and get to have the tour guides give us a detailed story of the place. I would fully back you DreaJay to embark on this trip to Ethiopia because it would be worth it! I am ever impressed by the architectural awareness of the builders at the time.

  9. Wow, i have always spoken about going to one of these beautiful rock-hewn churches. I didnt understand its religious relevance until reading this. Seeing that hosted the ark of God is really divine and this is why i believe that it should be given full respect. Nice to see all this information on the church and also to learn that it is actually built from the top down. Great post.

    1. John, what I always imagine is how these churches looked like after construction. They must have been a beauty to behold. The fact that they were inspired by God’s revelation makes them special.
      I appreciate your views and comment, John.

  10. I’m actually so perplexed right now just by reading through this article. Well, I shouldn’t be so surprised, sometimes to man, it may seem impossible to achieve certain things but with God’s divine intervention,it becomes a reality. Ethiopia is really blessed to have housed the Ark of God and many other religious artefacts. I’ll definitely find time to travel to Ethiopia just to see these Rock hewn churches. Thanks to you for bringing a wonderful information like this to our notice, you’ve done well.

    1. I am glad Wildecoll that this article has confirmed Ethiopia as your travel destination on your bucket list.
      The Rock-Hewn churches are one of the many masterpieces that were conceived in the mind of an African man; that confirms that there are no bounds to what man can achieve on earth, with God on your side.

  11. It is stories like these that trigger my interest to travel.
    I would wish to experience the environment at the Rock-Hewn churches and be part of a long list people that have visited and prayed from there.
    Thank you for this post Edgar.

    1. Hello Karimi, as you long for an experience at Lalibela, I am already experiencing a sense of satisfaction from reading that this post has triggered your desire to travel to Ethiopia.
      You get to hit two birds with one stone when you visit this place. You will enjoy the beautiful scenery as well as have a religious moment. I hope that the day comes for you to fulfil your desire to visit this place.
      Thank you for leaving me a comment.

  12. What a great read! I knew nothing about these buildings eve though It’s been some time since Ethiopia became a traveling target for me. I am impressed by the “strange strategy of building the churches from top to bottom “. How did they manage to do it? I am pretty convinced that I must see them with my own eyes. Thank you for expanding my knowledge and traveling horizons, Ahimbe! Keep up the good work!

    1. There places somewhere we always never know about until someone writes about them. I am glad I have played that part and brought to your knowledge a place you didn’t know existed.
      I hope you have a great experience when you do go there.
      Thank you for stopping by Effie, and giving me a pat on the back.

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