The smallest of the three former capitals that form the nucleus of Ethiopia’s historic circuit, LALIBELA is the site of Ethiopia’s one inarguable must-see attraction: the labyrinthine complex of thirteen medieval rock-hewn churches and chapels associated with Emperor Lalibela. Lalibela’s churches were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, and indisputably represent the apex of an Ethiopian temple-excavating tradition that might well predate the arrival of Christianity in the fourth century AD. Yet for all their architectural finesse, perhaps the most remarkable thing about these churches is that they are not primarily museum pieces or archeological sites, but living, breathing places of worship that have remained in active use since their excavation more than eight hundred years ago.
Given its historical pedigree, Lalibela town itself is more modest than might be expected, with a population estimated at 15,000, an aura of highland rusticity that’s gradually being eroded by tourism, and a sprawling shape moulded by the same slopes and outcrops into which its churches are carved. It also has a very isolated location, set at a lofty altitude of 2630m among craggy hills overlooked by Mount Abune Yoseph.