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Ethiopia: Coming home for Christmas in Lalibela

Updated: Jan 19

Those who celebrate (Othdox) Christmas in Lalibela in Ethiopia are not alone. When I visited the rock-hewn church in 2019, there were 500,000 other pilgrims there. An unrivalled experience.

Saint George Church Lalibela Ethiopia

Safety note: I was in Ethiopia in 2019. There is currently a travel warning from the Federal Foreign Office. Please check before you book a trip.

Here a video to show you the atmosphere of the place:

Christmas in Lalibela/Ethiopia is an unforgettable experience:

It is six o'clock in the morning and I hardly dare to put one foot in front of the other for fear of stepping on some human body part with every step I take.

Christmas in Ethiopia - to be more precise, Christian Orthodox Christmas in Lalibela - means 500,000 pilgrims,

who keep watch on this holy night in order to be closer to God. But the people I am trying not to step on hands or feet are nor keeping watch neither awake. The area in front of the churches, the size of a football pitch, is more like a huge mattress camp where the faithful are dozing. We try to push our way to the cliff edge above Bet Maryam (the Church of Mary) to catch a glimpse of the angels who will announce the birth of Christ from the heights at sunrise.

Chritmas Eve Lalibela ethiopia Wibke Helfrich

We absolutely have to experience this singing live - at least that's what our guide Hailu thinks, who has relentlessly woken us up from our sweet dreams and put us into what for me are nightmarish crowds. Hailu looks a bit like a young Barack Obama - his charming smile eases my discomfort.

"Relax ..." he reassures me "there hasn't been a mass panic here since the churches were built 900 years ago."

Waiting for angles in heaven

Nevertheless, I am jubilant when, after passing a barrier and crossing a makeshift metal bridge, we finally escape the crowd and stand high above the church. This cliff edge, called heaven, is reserved in Ethiopia only for angels and the still few tourists. In this case, it is an approximately two-metre narrow ridge of red sandstone that separates the churches Bet Medhane Alem and our destination Bet Maryam.

From here you can look down 20 metres to the right and left to the houses of worship carved out of the stone.

On the night of 6 January, it is a scene as if from another time: every inch is occupied by worshippers wrapped in the traditional white cloaks.

Some hold candles and read the Bible, others pray, and still others sit with their eyes closed to fully absorb this spiritual experience for which they have travelled on foot from all over the country.

Pilgrims Lalibela Ethiopia

The day before, we could watch the tired pilgrims, exhausted but happy, streaming into the city of 40,000 inhabitants. This spectacle has been repeated year after year since the 12th century. At that time, King Lalibela allegedly had all eleven churches hewn out of the stone in 23 years - people worked for him during the day, angels were at work at night. His aim was to spare his subjects the long arduous pilgrimage to faraway Jerusalem, from which many never returned.

And if the Ethiopians cannot go to Jerusalem, then Jerusalem must come to Ethiopia,

the king thought and created a second holy city. With or without the help of angels, the buildings were carved out of the soft stone of the plain and connected by a labyrinthine system of corridors and tunnels.

From Heaven to Hell

The longest and darkest passage is called Hell - in combination with the penetrating smell of sweaty feet, this description pretty much hits the mark.

The most impressive monolithic church is dedicated to St. George. From a bird's - pardon, angel's - eye view, its floor plan shows the outline of a Greek cross. To realise this shape as well as the interior construction from top to bottom, the architect must really have had an ingenious master plan in mind. Except for St. George's Church, all the other buildings are now well, if not particularly pretty, protected from external influences by UNESCO with a roof construction.

Click on the first picture to start the photo gallery:

At sunsrise the angles sing and the shepherds dance

As is well known, all cats are grey at night, and so the metal pillars in St. Mary's Church are not too disturbing as the priests (they will embody the angels) make their way towards heaven singing. A heavy scent of incense fills the air and only the flickering of candles illuminates the pompously dressed churchwardens. Golden umbrellas, glittering crosses, rising smoke, drums and the rhythmic jingling of sistrum rattles - a long line of priests moves past us to the two front sides of the church. As the first rays of sun bathe their faces in light, the chants rise once more to a crescendo.

Down in the churchyard the shepherds (the faithful) dance and up on the rock face the angels sing.

Not a sleeping eye remains closed ... where before the pilgrims were blissfully slumbering, now everything is packed with praying people, even on the sparsely sown trees pilgrims sit tightly packed to get a better view of the spectacle.

And me? I stand speechless among pilgrims, angels and shepherds, waiting for the Saviour to appear to me, for what else could top this scene?


Travel to Ethiopia

Ethiopian Airlines offers a daily seven-hour flight to Addis Ababa from approx. 550 euros. If you book the international flight with Ethiopian, the domestic flights are cheaper. Several times daily for approx. 80€ on to Lalibela.


We stayed at the Cliff Edge Hotel. The accommodation is about 10 minutes away from the churches and is perched on a cliff.

Double room with breakfast about 60€.


Ben Abeba ist wohl das spacigste Restaurant das Äthiopien zu bieten hat. Wie ein gigantisches Raumschiff, dass auf einer Klippe gestrandet ist, thront es am nordöstlichen Stadtrand.


is probably the most spacey restaurant Ethiopia has to offer. Like a gigantic spaceship stranded on a cliff, it is enthroned on the north-eastern edge of the city.

Lalibela Eco Trekking

Organises everything from the domestic flight, transport, food, hotel to the English-speaking guide. The all-round carefree package for 2 days of sightseeing in Lalibela including accommodation costs 247$. We booked our entire Ethiopia trip from Germany here.

You can read more Blogs of Ethiopia, which I wrote here:

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