The area around Lalibela is rich in rock and above ground churches. But at the moment only a few are known and visited by tourists. We describe here only the most accessible to visit. Several years ago these churches could be reached only on foot. Now most of the churches are accessible using transportation.
Nakutelab is another interesting tourist site in the area of Asheton Mariam that is 6km south east of Lalibela. It is a monastery found inside a natural cave. A stairway made of stone leads the way to the well-built entrance of carved stone. (1hour walking or 30 minutes’ drive from Lalibela.
ASHETAN MARYAM (Saint Mary)
An 8km steep climb of some 2000 feet from Lalibela leads up to the church of Ashetan Maryam. This rock-hewn church is found on a hilltop east of the town of Lalibela. One can reach Ashetan Maryam by foot or mule (1.5hour walk from Lalibela). A road for vehicles is under construction.
GENNATA MARYAM (The Paradise of Mary)
Gennata Maryam is 22 km from Lalibela. Gennata Maryam is a true monolithic rock church on a high plinth. Unlike the Lalibela churches which are hidden in their pits this church is not surrounded by the walls of a trench; you may see it from far away – a block of pink tuff in the midst of green euphorbias and opuntias. Like Medhane Alern it has a colonnade of rectangular pillars. Note the fine reliefs of Latin crosses in blind arcades on the top of the ‘pitched’ roof. In the interior the rich painting displays a style that might be described as “archaic”. Authorities claim that they originate from the 13th century, the probable period of creation for that church. The range of colours is limited: brown, ochre, green and a shining light blue. Motifs include saints from the Coptic synaxarium as well as angels, the sun and the moon and crosses of various shapes that we find so often in this area. (4 hour walk or 1 hour drive from Lalibela)
MAKINA MEDHANE ALEM (Redeemer of the World in Makina)
Like Yemrehanna Kristos, Makina Medhane Alem is a built cave church in Axumite style. It is east of Lalibela, set in a huge gaping cavern on the eastern slopes of Makina, a spur of Abune Yosef. Although an example of Axumite wood and stone construction, the church exhibits a unique modification: polished wall sections of leveled rubble between layers of dressed blocks of reddish tuff. The interior has rich painted decoration displaying geometric motifs as well as figurative ones. You may, admire the portrayals of saints as well as the sun and the moon symbols above the main entrance. A lovely little picture of fighting cocks next to the sun gives a glimpse into the interest of the painter for details. (7 hour walk from Lalibela or 3 hour walk from Gennata Maryam)
CHURCHES NEAR BILBALA VILLAGE
Bilbala is situated 30km from Lalibela off the road northwards to Sekota. In this circuit, tourists can explore about five churches comprising, Yemrehanna Kristos, Arbatu Entzessa, Bilbala Chirkos, Bilbala Giorgis and Sarsana Mica’el. These churches are 12km from the village of Bilbala.
YEMREHANNA KRISTOS (“Christ Show us the Way”)
This remarkable church is located 42km northeast of Lalibela, on a mountain ridge the peak of which is Abune Yosef. It is a built cave church with marble and special woods used in church construction. The church has become famous for the decoration of its interior. The flat-span roof displays paneling richly adorned with geometric designs. Note the beautiful coffer ceiling with inlaid hexagons and medallions with either figurative or geometric motifs. The ceiling over the sanctuary is domed and displays carvings and paintings. The design of the church reflects a superior architectural art. The founder of the church is said to have been King Yemrehanna Kristos, a predecessor of King Lalibela. (5 hour walk or 2 hour drive from Lalibela).
ARBATU ENTZESSA (The Four Animals, or the Four Beasts)
Arbatu Entzessa can be reached from Yemrehanna Kristos by proceeding to the southwest. This tiny monolithic sanctuary is detached from the surrounding rock on two sides. It shows remains of old ornaments; pillars, capitals and doors are chiselled in Axumite style. The name suggests that the church is dedicated to the “four beasts”, symbols of the Four Evangelists following the vision of St. John. The Ethiopian synaxarium dedicates the 8th of Hedar (November) to these four beasts. (5 hour walk or 2 hour drive from Lalibela)
BILBALA GIORGIS (ST. GEORGE IN THE BILBALA DISTRICT)
Proceeding from Arbatu Entzessa to the west you find Bilbala Giorgis, of which only the facade is visible. A tunnel surrounds the other sides; the roof is not separated from the rock. A frieze with emblems of the vault of heaven decorates the facade. The church built by King Kaleb (5th-6th century A.D). Here you also have also the possibility of seeing the holy bees making holy honey used for abdominal healing . (7 hour walk or 1.5 hour drive from Lalibela).
BILBALA CHIRKOS (CHIRKOS IN THE BILBALA DISTRICT)
West of Bilbala Giorgis you find this semi-monolithic church located northwest of Lalibela. The church is properly orientated and has been worked from tuff from east to west. The careful stone masonry on the facade is reminiscent of the facade of Bet Gabriel-Rufa’el in Lalibela and the admirable murals depicting saints and the Evangelists in the interior are of particular interest to the visitor. (5 hour walk or 2 hour drive from Lalibela).
SARSANA MIKA’EL (ST. MICHAEL OF SARSANA DISTRICT)
The most western church of this tour is this tiny monolithic church, lying in a grove of euphorbia trees in the Sarsana plains and scarcely visible in its bed of rock. Through a passage you reach a deep trench running round the church. Three sides are exposed revealing influences of the Axumite style. Next to a door the priests will show you a dark block of stone that is said to kill sinners on the spot once they touch it. Another legend is connected with the torrent nearby: a big snake is said to live there, which has devoured four sinners during the last hundred years. (6 hour walk or 3 hour drive from Lalibela).