Day Trip to Yemrehanna Kristos Church in Lalibela, Ethiopia

By Mark Wiens 4 Comments
Yemrehanna Kristos Church
First glimpse at Yemrehanna Kristos Church

Ethiopia is a treasure of history and culture.

When I was in Ethiopia, I had a couple days in Lalibela, and I wanted to make the most of my time.

So along with visiting the impressive and famous churches of Lalibela, located right inside town, we decided to go check out a church known as Yemrehanna Kristos (also spelled Yemrehana Krestos).

The church was built in the late Axumite period, and dates back to the 11th or 12th century, but sources are still uncertain.

Journey to the church

The journey to the church

This church is located about a 1.5 hour drive from Lalibela (the distance is not too long, but the roads aren’t good).

I think half the fun of actually visiting Yemrehanna Kristos was the drive and beauty of getting there.

The first part of the road was paved, but then the road turned from good to terrible.

We passed many fields of teff (the grain used to make injera), waving in the cool highland breeze.

Young shepherds near Lalibela, Ethiopia

Since we were in a private vehicle, it was nice to be able to stop occasionally to take photos, enjoy the fresh air, and the beautiful scenery.

When we stopped for a few minutes, young shepherds came running to see us and what we were doing.

Along with carrying sticks to control their flocks, they were all carrying small bundles of fresh beans.

Snacks in Ethiopia
Snacking on fresh beans

Our guide wanted some of the beans to take home to his family back in Lalibela, so after a bit of conversation with the shepherds they handed over a bunch of the beans.

I’m not sure exactly what they were, but they looked a lot like soybeans, yet the stalks didn’t look like soybeans to me.

They were a nice healthy and raw road-trip snack, and tasted kind of like a raw pea.

A shepherd we came across near Lalibela

We met more and more shepherds along the journey, and the landscapes were absolutely beautiful.

We made it… barely

The road to Yemrehanna Kristos was rough to say the least, and four wheel drive was necessary. Due to the rough and rocky ups and down, we spun out a number of times.

I was half expecting a tire blowout as we rounded the next corner or hit a rock that sent us bouncing into to the roof of the Land Cruiser – luckily the blowout never happened.

When we arrived, I got out to check the tires… just completely stripped. I was impressed our tires made it.

Ethiopian church
Short hike to get to the church

After arriving in the parking lot, you then have to take about a 10 minute hike up the hill to reach the entrance of the cave and church.

The elevation is quite high, so if you’re like me, you’ll likely lose your breath on the hike up, even though it’s not too long.

Yemrehanna Kristos
First sight of Yemrehanna Kristos Church

Arriving to Yemrehanna Kristos

The first glimpse of the church is really nothing too spectacular… I actually didn’t even know this was it at first, it looked more like someones home than a church – the outside is not too pretty – especially with a wall of cinder block making the atmosphere a little on the unnatural side.

Apparently the modern brick wall was put up in 1980 to guard the church.

Ethiopian monastery
The face of the main monastery

You first have to take off your shoes outside of the wall, and as soon as you step inside, what greets you is Yemrehanna Kristos church.

The architecture and design is ancient, yet impressive.

Slotted into a rock cavern, there was a mysterious feel to it – the type of feeling you might expect from being inside an Indiana Jones movie.

The church is not a real common attraction, so it’s likely you’ll be the only one there visiting when you go (at least at the time I’m writing this).

olive wood
The door, make from a single piece of olive wood

The main door to enter the church was a single slab of olive wood, thick, and I’m sure it weighed a ton or more.

There were metal studs in the wood, and you could just see its incredibly old age.

Paintings above the doorway
Paintings above the doorway

Above the entrance door were fading paintings, which our guide mentioned were all original.

Yemrehanna Kristos Church
Inside the monastery

The priest unlocked the doors to the church so we could take a peak inside.

The inside was not very spacious, like it had looked from the outside, but it was filled with artwork, on all pillars, walls, and on the roof.

Decorated roof of the church
Decorated roof of the church

I can’t begin to explain everything, and due to my amazement, I could hardly follow all the details that our guide attempted to explain to us, but it was fascinating.

Parts of the roof in the main monastery were covered in wooden panel carvings, and our guide mentioned that everything was from the original construction.

Aksumite designs and construction

Symbols, meanings, and details were etched into every part of the church, most of the crosses and decoration being Aksumite style.

Churches in Lalibela
Behind the curtains, only the priest can go…

One of the things I loved seeing at all the ancient churches I visited in Ethiopia was how the stones were just greased and oiled by the countless hands touching them over years and years and years.

If you see that pillar on the left side, it’s just smooth from so many hands.

bronze cross
Priest the the original bronze cross

The priest slipped into the back of the church and came out showing us the ancient bronze cross, which was pretty impressive to see.

I’m not a huge fan of museums, but I do love history that’s still being used (as long it’s preserving the culture and being taken care of properly).

Gypsum walls covered in paintings

Many of the walls of the church are covered in gypsum, which is claimed to have come from Jerusalem.

I’m not sure how far back the wall paintings and images are from, but the artwork was both unique and interesting. Images of the 12 disciples and the Apostle Paul filled the ancient walls of the church.

Our guide said that the artwork and colors were all original, preserved quite well being hidden within the cave and hidden from the elements.

Yemrehanna Kristos church
Remains of pilgrims

At the far backside of the cave is a pile of human skulls and skeletons. As our guide mentioned, over the years many Christian pilgrims came to the church to die, and their remains were piled in the back of the cave.

According to one source, bones of some 11,000 pilgrims are sitting back there.

It’s definitely a little on the spooky side.

Things to do in Lalibela
Beautiful natural scenery and teff fields

The drive back to Lalibela was equally as beautiful, and we passed farms and shepherds along the route.

Driving back to Lalibela

Trip to Yemrehanna Kristos

Since the church is located about 40 km from Lalibela, and it’s isolated in just about the middle of nowhere, you have few choices but to just hire a private four-wheel drive truck to get there (I think you can also arrange a trekking tour there if you have the time).

I think all hotels in Lalibela will be able to organize the trip.

I paid 2,200 ETB ($111.30) for everything, including transportation and entrance fees for 2 of us. I think we may have overpaid, but it was just 2 of us in a private vehicle, so if you have a few others, prices would be less per person.

It took about 1.5 hours to drive each way, and we probably spent about 1 hour there, so it was a good half day trip.

Overall, what I enjoyed most about visiting Yemrehanna Kristos was its lack of development – it’s really an ancient church in the raw, and it’s not visited by too many tourists.

Having the place to ourselves added another dimension of beauty to it, and the beautiful journey to get there and back was fantastic (you just might have a sore butt when you get back).