View the Incredible 900-Year-Old Rock-Hewn Churches of Ethiopia

These medieval cave churches connected by tunnels were carved entirely by hand.  
Biete Ghiorgis Church Ethiopia UNESCO
An aerial view of the church of Biete Ghiorgis (Saint George) in Lalibela. Photo: © George Steinmetz/Corbis

Lalibela, a town in Ethiopia, is most famous for its rock-hewn churches. In 1978, it was put on UNESCO’s original world heritage list of 12 sites. These 11 Ethiopian Orthodox churches were chiselled out of red volcanic rock and then hollowed out on the inside to create doors, windows, columns and embellishments.

King Lalibela commissioned the building of these churches in the 12th century. Numerous legends surround these structures; according to one, the construction was speeded up because while labourers slogged during the day, angels took over at night.

The monolithic churches were meant to form a “New Jerusalem”. The sacred buildings are spread across the town, but are all connected via labyrinthine tunnels. A small river named Jordan – tying in with the Biblical imagery that girds the town – divides the complex into two. According to UNESCO, the division represents an “earthly Jerusalem” and a “heavenly Jerusalem”.

Last year, there were reports that these manmade wonders were being used to shift the focus off famines and boost tourism in the country. Tigray, also in Ethiopia, has rock-hewn churches too, but appears to be less accessible than those in Lalibela.

Scroll down for more photos of the medieval churches.

Biete Ghiorgis Church Ethiopia UNESCO

The church of Biete Ghiorgis (Saint George). Photo: © Toby Adamson/Design Pics/Corbis

A cruciform window (left) at the church of Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel). These windows have fine detailing (right). Photos: A.Davey/Flickr/Creative Commons

A cruciform window (left) at the church of Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel). These windows have fine detailing (right). Photos: A.Davey/Flickr/Creative Commons

Biete Abba Libanos Church UNESCO Ethiopia

The church of Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos). Photo: A.Davey/Flickr/Creative Commons

  • Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's digital team. Since then, her words have featured in The Hindu, Mint Lounge, Roads & Kingdoms, The Goya Journal, and Condé Nast Traveller India. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram @fabiolamonteiro.

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