Lalibela and Lake Tana Island monasteries
Christianity as it is practised in Ethiopia today has changed little since the medieval times. You find churches and monasteries everywhere: in tiny villages, remote caves, and on inaccessible mountain slopes. Some are simple, many are brightly decorated, and others – like the famous monolithic churches of Lalibela or the rock-hewn monasteries in the cliffs of the Gheralta Mountains in Tigray – are awe-inspiring feats of faith. They need to be seen to be believed.
Christianity was adopted by people in northern Ethiopia as early as the 4th century, and the unique Old Testament-style Orthodox Christianity defines this country’s values, culture, language, and music as it does in few other places on earth.
Here, Christianity is about far more than architecture, history and religious art. It’s the fabric of every-day life, and that’s what you experience when you travel with us – how people live their faith each day, not only in the churches and the monasteries, but in their homes and communities. We introduce you to local people who invite you to share their Sunday rituals, and give you the chance to speak to the priests, nuns and monks and to see first-hand what a life of devotion entails.
In the ancient town of Lalibela you stare down on the churches, hand-carved out of the rock. Each one is seamless, hewn from the red volcanic rock, and each one is different inside and out, some bright and patterned, others unadorned. This is a living UNESCO World Heritage Site: people worship here every day, and during the religious festivals the churches and surrounding land throng with pilgrims.
You reach the island monasteries on Lake Tana by boat from Bahir Dar on the shores of Ethiopia’s largest lake. This is an entirely different experience to Lalibela. Many of these monasteries were formed in the 14th century. The architecture and construction is far simpler, but the unusual circular buildings at the heart of these remote religious communities are richly decorated, almost every surface depicting stories from the Bible or about the saints.
To complete your exploration of Ethiopia’s churches and monasteries, you visit the region of Tigray, further north. As in other areas you see nuns, monks and priests living as they have for centuries, caretakers of some of Christianity’s most precious relics. Amongst them, the alleged Ark of the Covenant at The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum, and the Gerima Gospels, the oldest known illustrated Christian manuscripts, kept in the Abba Gerima Monastery, literally half way up a mountain. Abba Gerima is just one of more than 200 rock-hewn churches and monasteries in the Gheralta Mountains, where exquisitely painted spaces of worship have been carved into sheer cliffs, many at dizzying heights with challenging access that demand a good head for heights.
Lalibela and Lake Tana Monasteries Tour
This is a sample tour that includes this experience. It gives you an idea of cost and what you could expect to see and do in 7 days. It could work in either direction, and we can tailor it in any number of ways.
- 2 days in Bahir Dar visiting the 14th-century island monasteries scattered across Lake Tana
- 3 days wandering through Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches and visiting Yemrehanne Kristos and the Asheton Maryam Monastery in the surrounding hills
- 2 days exploring Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s historic capital
Starting from £1,595per person on double occupancy basis. (excluding all flights)
Single supplement: £300
- All accommodation on B&B basis
- All airport and road transfers
- Entry fees and a local tour guides at all the historic sites and national parks
- An expert guide to accompany you throughout your tour
A few suggestions for tailoring your tour
You may wish to include a mountain trek, community walk, a few days cycling, or bird watching. Or we can arrange for you to spend an extra night or two at a particular place – the luxurious Kurifta Spa Lodge in Bahir Dar for example. Some alternatives definitely worth considering are:
- 2 days (2 nights) at Limalimo Lodge in the magnificent Simien Mountains National Park
- 1 day (1 night) in Gonder, exploring its UNESCO World Heritage sites
You could complete a tour of Lalibela, the island monasteries of Lake Tana, Axum and the rock churches of Tigray in 8 days. We highly recommend that if you have the time you drive between the different towns, rather than fly. The drive across the Ethiopian Highlands from Lalibela to Tigray is exceptional, with dramatic scenery passing baobabs and forests of frankincense trees.
When to go
The only time to avoid travelling to any of these areas would be over the rainy season, which is from July to mid-September.
Our top tip for experiencing the churches and monasteries
“Come to Ethiopia with an open heart and an open mind to make the most of your journey.”
For some background and insight into Christianity in Ethiopia try reading The Orthodox Church of Ethiopia by John Binns, or Hidden Treasure of Ethiopia: A Guide to the Remote Churches of an Ancient Land by Marie-Jose Friedlander.
Flights to Ethiopia
What happens in an emergency?
Communicating in Ethiopia
Ethiopian time and dates
The weather and what to pack
Mobile phone coverage and Internet access in Ethiopia
Advice from locals
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