Despite Yemrehanna Kristos being one of Ethiopia’s best-preserved late-Aksumite buildings, few people reward themselves with a visit. And a reward it is. The church is different because it’s built rather than excavated. Seeing the stepped exterior facade, created from alternating wood and stone layers, you’ll understand why so many of Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches look like they do. And knowing that Yemrehanna Kristos may predate Lalibela’s churches by up to 80 years, you have before you a virtual blueprint of greatness.
Incredibly, the whole church sits on a foundation of carefully laid olive-wood panels, which ‘float’ it perfectly above the marshy ground. The carving and decoration are exceptional, especially the cruciform windows and the elaborate nave ceiling. Behind the church lies a pile of mummified bodies: some are those of pilgrims who’ve come here to die over the centuries; others are said to be those of the workmen.
This entirely inspiring and slightly spooky complex sits within a cave roofed by basalt lava flows. The ugly brick wall at the front was built in 1985 to improve the church’s security.
The church is about 1½ hours (45km) north of Lalibela by 4WD. It can easily be visited along with Arbatu Ensessa, Bilbila Giyorgis and Bilbila Chirkos. It’s also possible to get here by foot or mule. Both options take about five hours to cover the shorter 20km distance. The climb up to the church through a forest of juniper trees alive with vervet monkeys takes around 20 minutes.
If you’re in the area on 10 October (19 October in the Ethiopian calendar), the site throngs with pilgrims and is an unforgettable experience.