In a mountainous region, in the heart of Ethiopia, some 645km from Addis Ababa, is a town famous for “monolithic rock-cut churches”.  LALIBELA is one of Ethiopia’s holiest places, second only to AKSUM, and it is a centre of pilgrimage.  Unlike Aksum, the population of Lalibela is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox Christian.  Ethiopia is one of the earliest nations to adopt Christianity in the 1st half of the 4th century, and its historical roots date back to the time of the Apostles.


The layout and names of the major buildings, in Lalibela, are widely accepted, especially by local clergy, to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem.  This has led experts to date the current church forms to the years following the capture of Jerusalem, in 1187, by Muslim leader —– SALADIN.

During the reign of St. Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, the current town of Lalibela was known as ROHA.  The saintly King was named so, because a swarm of bees is said to have surrounded him at his birth, which his mother took as a sign of his future reign as Emperor of Ethiopia.  Lalibela, the King’s name, means “the bee recognizes its sovereignty”.


King Lalibela, revered as a saint, is said to have seen Jerusalem (in a dream) and then attempted to build a New Jerusalem as his capital, in response to the capture of the Old Jerusalem by Muslims in 1187. The 11 medieval monolithic rock-cut churches of this 13th century New Jerusalem are situated in a mountainous region, in the heart of Ethiopia.  The churches were not constructed in a traditional way, but, rather were hewn from the living rock of “monolithic blocks”.  These blocks were further chiselled out forming doors, windows, columns, various floors, roofs, etc. This gigantic work was further completed with an extensive system of drainage ditches, trenches and ceremonial passages, some with openings to hermit caves and catacombs.  Each church was carved from a single piece of rock to symbolise “spirituality & humility”.  Christian Faith inspires many features with Biblical names, even Lalibela’s river is known as the River Jordan.

The 1st European to see these churches was the Portuguese explorer  —– PERO da COVILHA (1460-1526).  Portuguese priest —- Francisco Alvares (1465-1540), accompanied the Portuguese Ambassador on his visit to LEBNA DENGEL in the 1520s.  He describes the “unique” church structures as follows : “I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more ……….. I swear by God, in Whose power I am, that all I have written IS THE TRUTH.”


Although Ramuso included plans of several other churches in his 1550 printing of Alvares’ book, who supplied the drawings, remains a mystery.  The next reported European visitor to Lalibela —- MIGUEL de CASTANHOSO —— served as a soldier under Christovao de Gama, and left Ethiopia in 1544.  After de Castanhoso, 300yrs passed until the next European —– Gerhard Rohlfs —– visited Lalibela some time between 1865 and 1870.

According to the FUTUH al-HABASA of SIHAB ad-Din AHMAD, Ahmad Gragn burned one of the churches of Lalibela during his invasion of Ethiopia.  However, Richard Prankhurst has expressed his scepticism about this event, pointing out that although Sihab ad-Din Ahmad provides a detailed description of a rock-hewn church, is that it is the site of 11 rock-cut churches, NOT JUST ONE, and they are all within more or less a stone’s throw of each other.


The “Jerusalem” theme is important.  The churches, although connected to one another by “maze-like tunnels”, are physically separated by a small river, which the Ethiopians named the Jordan.  Churches on one side of the Jordan represent the “earthly Jerusalem”, whereas those on the other side represent the “heavenly Jerusalem” —— alluded to in the Bible.


UNESCO identifies 11 churches, assembled in 4 groups :  (1st group) —–

** BIETE MEDHAN ALEM (House of the Saviour of the world), home to the Lalibela Cross and believed to be the “largest monolithic church in the world”, with its 5 aisles.
** BIETE MARYAM (House of Miriam), possibly the oldest of the churches, and a replica of the tombs of Adam and Christ.
** BIETE GOLGOTHA MIKAEL (House of Golgotha Mikael), known for its arts and said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela.
** BIETE MASKAL (House of the Cross)
** BIETE DENAGEL (House of Virgins).
** BIETE GIVORGIS (Church of St. George), thought to be the “most finely executed” and “best preserved church”.
** BIETE AMANUEL (House of Emmanuel), possible the former Royal Chapel.
** BIETE QEDDUS MERCOREUS (House of St. Mark), which may be a former prison.
** BIETE ABBA LIBANOS (House of Abbot Libanos).
** BIETE GABRIEL  —- RUFAEL (House of the angels Gabriel and Raphael), possible a former Royal Palace, linked to a bakery.  ** BIETE LEHEM (House of Holy Bread).


Further afield, lie the Monastery of ASHETAN MERYAM & YIMREHANE KRISTO’S church (possibly 11th century, built in the AKSUMITE fashion, but within a cave).  The Churches are a “significant engineering feat”, given that they are all associated with water (which fills the wells next to many of the churches) exploiting an artesian geological system that brings the water up to the top of the mountain ridge on which the city rests.


In a 1970 report of the historic dwellings of Lalibela, Sandro Angel evaluated the “vernacular” earthen architecture of the Lalibela World Heritage Site, including the characteristics of the traditional “earth houses” and analysis of their state of conservation.  His report described 2 types of “vernacular” housing found in the area.  The 1st type are a group he calls the LASTA TUKULS (round huts built of local red stone and having 2 storeys.  The 2nd group consist of the single-storey CHIKA buildings (round and built of earth and wattle, which he feels reflects more “scarcity”)  Angel’s report also included an inventory of Lalibela’s traditional buildings, placing them in categories rating their state of conservation.

Lalibela Ethiopia

Lalibela is also home to an airport, a large market, 2 schools and a hospital.  Lalibela is mentioned as “the city of priests and rock-hewn churches in Tananarive Due’s science-fiction novel ——— MY SOUL TO KEEP.


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