The most popular tourist attraction anywhere in Ethiopia, the awe-inspiring complex of rock-hewn churches in and the around the small highland town of Lalibela has been billed as sub-Saharan Africa’s answer to Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu. True, Lalibela is not quite as ancient as either of these sites, but its medieval churches improve on both insofar as they are not mute ruins of a half-forgotten civilization but active shrines that have remained in continuous use ever since they were hand-carved into the pink volcanic ruff underlying the town.
Lesser-known but worthwhile attractions near Lalibela include the cluster of equally historic but less frequently visited churches around the village of Bilbilla, and a recently proclaimed community reserve protecting the endemic wildlife that inhabits the windswept upper slopes of Mount Abune Yoseph. Elsewhere, the twin towns of Dessie and Kombolcha are useful overnight stopovers that provide access to the pretty Lake Hayk and seething Bati livestock market, while modest Weldiya is of interest primarily as the main springboard for public transport to Lalibela.
Top image: Lalibela © Barbara Barbour/Shutterstock
The countryside around Lalibela is scattered with historic rock-hewn and cave churches, many of which are attributed to King Lalibela or other rulers of the Zagwe dynasty. Architecturally, most of them bear similarity to what you’ll see at Lalibela, but they tend to attract far fewer tourists, which – together with the rough roads and wild mountainous countryside – creates something of an expedition feel.
A popular goal for a day-trip, the Asheton Maryam Monastery is one of the highest in Ethiopia, set at an elevation of almost 4000m to the southeast of Lalibela. Carved into a cliff face, it was most probably founded by Nakuta La’ab, who may also be buried there. The small and unadorned church harbours a few impressive crosses, illuminated manuscripts and other treasures, though arguably the most remarkable aspect of a visit to Asheton Maryam is its magnificent setting and the stunning views as you ascend.
The small village of BILBILLA, 30km north of Lalibela off the Sekota road, lies at the centre of a cluster of four historic churches. Three of these are rock-hewn, and though not as impressive as their counterparts in Lalibela town, they do predate them by several centuries – dating back, it’s claimed, to the sixth-century reign of Emperor Kaleb – and have the advantage of being less heavily touristed. The fourth and most unusual church, Yemrehanna Kristos, is a cave temple protecting a very old rectangular church built from layered wood and stone.
Peaking at 4284m about 15km northeast of Lalibela, Mount Abune Yoseph (also known as Rim Gedel) is one of the highest and wildest mountains in Ethiopia. Its remote upper slopes support a relict population of around 25 Ethiopian wolves, along with large numbers of gelada monkey, while the massif is home to more than two hundred bird species including lammergeyer and the endemic Erlanger’s lark, blue-winged goose and Ankober serin. A 70-square-kilometre area around the peak is set aside as the Abune Yoseph Community Conservation Area and is serviced by the highest community lodge in Africa (set at a chilly 3952m) as well as an extensive network of hiking trails. A minimum of three days and two nights is recommended for the trip, and the hike can be extended to a week by following some of the community trails established by Tesfa.
Set at an altitude of around 2500m below the prominent Mount Tossa, the large, sprawling town of DESSIE (sometime spelt Dese) is an obvious place to stop overnight on the long trip between Addis Ababa, 400km to the south, and Lalibela or Mekele. It has rather amorphous feel, running for about 6km along the main northbound road, but most amenities of interest to tourists, including the more popular hotels, lie within 500m of the central roundabout sometimes referred to as the Piazza.
The town was founded by Yohannis IV after he saw a comet while encamped in the vicinity of Mount Tossa in 1882. Six years later, it became the capital of Negus Mikael of Wello, an influential Oromo prince who married the eldest daughter of Menelik II in 1893, and subsequently fathered the future Iyasu V. Much of the modern city centre dates to the Italian occupation and postwar decades, during which time Dessie grew to become the third-largest city in the empire. Development has stagnated somewhat since the 1970s, but it still supports a population approaching 200,000.
BATI, a mid-altitude town 42km east of Kombolcha, comes into its own every Monday when it hosts Ethiopia’s largest livestock market, an unmissable multicultural phenomenon that attracts tens of thousands of locals to sell, buy and barter over camels, cattle and other livestock and commodities. Along with Amhara and Oromo villagers from the highlands, you’ll see plenty of semi-nomadic desert-dwelling Afar, the men wielding their customary daggers and women adorned with plaited hairstyles and ornate jewellery.
Smaller, lower lying and far less chaotic than Dessie, KOMBOLCHA is an agreeable, albeit unremarkable, town with a population of 100,000 and an unusually prominent manufacturing industry. Like its larger neighbour, 25km to the west along a scenic asphalt road, it’s a good choice for a stopover, with perhaps the area’s best accommodation just outside town.
Situated 1km east of the small town of HAYK, which straddles the Weldiya road 20km north of Dessie, pretty Lake Hayk is named after the Hayk Istafanos Monastery, which stands on a wooded peninsula on its western shore. The monastery aside, the 23-square-kilometre lake is one of the top birding spots in the region, supporting a profusion of pelicans and other water-associated species, while its shores blaze with colourful woodland residents including the endemic black-winged lovebird.
About 3km from Hayk town, Hayk Istafanos is one of Ethiopia’s most historic and influential monasteries. The church was founded in the ninth century by a monk called Kala’e Selama after he converted a local python-worshipping cult to Christianity. Hayk Istafanos became a monastery in the thirteenth century under the leadership of the influential priest Iyasus Moa. Soon after it emerged as the most powerful monastery in Ethiopia following the restoration of the Solomonic line under Yakuno Amlak, who had spent much of his youth here training as a novice under Iyasus Moa. The original church, like so many in the region, was destroyed by Ahmed Gragn in the sixteenth century, and its circular modern replacement is no more than a century old. Of far greater interest is the church museum, which houses several unusual artefacts. These include a heavy stone cross that reputedly belonged to its founder, a sacrificial stone formerly used by the pagans he converted and several very old illuminated books.
WELDIYA (often transcribed as Woldia) is a moderately proportioned town set among green rolling hills 500km north of Addis Ababa along the main road to Mekele. It is best known locally for its Tuesday and Saturday markets, and elsewhere in Ethiopia as the childhood home of the billionaire Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi (probably the world’s richest person of African birth). Weldiya’s main significance to travellers, however, is as the junction town for the so-called “China Road” to Lalibela. Indeed, for many years an overnight stay in Weldiya was an almost mandatory prelude to an overland trip to Lalibela, and even today this is probably the most convenient place to break up the long road journey there from Addis Ababa.