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Lalibela is a town in northern Ethiopia
Ethiopia , officially known as the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, is a country located in the Horn of Africa. It is the second-most populous nation in Africa, with over 82 million inhabitants, and the tenth-largest by area, occupying 1,100,000 km2...

, known for its monolithic church
Monolithic church
A monolithic church or rock-hewn church is a church made from a single block of stone. They are one of the most basic forms of monolithic architecture....

es. Lalibela is one of Ethiopia's holiest cities, second only to Aksum, and is a center of pilgrimage
A pilgrimage is a journey or search of great moral or spiritual significance. Typically, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person's beliefs and faith...

 for much of the country. Unlike Aksum, the population of Lalibela is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox Christian
Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is the predominant Oriental Orthodox Christian church in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Church was administratively part of the Coptic Orthodox Church until 1959, when it was granted its own Patriarch by Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All...

. The layout and names of the major buildings in Lalibela are widely accepted, especially by the local clergy, to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem. This has led some experts to date the current form of its famous churches to the years following the capture of Jerusalem in 1187 by the Muslim soldier Saladin
Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb , better known in the Western world as Saladin, was an Arabized Kurdish Muslim, who became the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria, and founded the Ayyubid dynasty. He led Muslim and Arab opposition to the Franks and other European Crusaders in the Levant...


Located in the Semien Wollo Zone
Semien Wollo Zone
Semien Wollo is a Zone in the Ethiopian Amhara Region. Semien Wollo acquired its name from the former province of Wollo. Semien Wollo is bordered on the south by Debub Wollo, on the west by Debub Gondar, on the north by Wag Hemra, and on the northeast and east by the Afar Region; part of its...

 of the Amhara
Amhara Region
Amhara is one of the nine ethnic divisions of Ethiopia, containing the homeland of the Amhara people. Previously known as Region 3, its capital is Bahir Dar....

 ethnic division
Regions of Ethiopia
||Ethiopia is divided into 9 ethnically-based administrative regions and two chartered cities...

, or kilil at 2,500 meters above sea level
Sea level
Mean sea level is a measure of the average height of the ocean's surface ; used as a standard in reckoning land elevation...

, Lalibela has a latitude and longitude of 12°02′N 39°02′E. It is one of two towns in Bugna
Bugna is one of the 105 woredas in the Amhara Region of Ethiopia. This woreda is named after the former district. Located in the northwest corner of the Semien Wollo Zone, Bugna is bordered on the south by Meket, on the west by the Debub Gondar Zone, on the north by the Wag Hemra Zone, and on the...

Woreda is an administrative division of Ethiopia , equivalent to a district . Woredas are composed of a number of Kebele, or neighborhood associations, which are the smallest unit of local government in Ethiopia...



During the reign of Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela
Gebre Mesqel Lalibela
Gebre Mesqel Lalibela , also called simply "Lalibela", which means "the bees recognise his sovereignty" in Old Agaw, was negus or king of Ethiopia and a member of the Zagwe dynasty. He is also considered a saint by the Ethiopian church. According to Taddesse Tamrat, he was the son of Jan Seyum and...

 (a member of the Zagwe Dynasty
Zagwe dynasty
The Zagwe dynasty was an historical kingdom in present-day Ethiopia. It ruled large parts of the territory from approximately 1137 to 1270, when the last Zagwe King Za-Ilmaknun was killed in battle by the forces of Yekuno Amlak...

, who ruled Ethiopia in the late 12th century and early 13th century) the current town of Lalibela was known as Roha. The saintly king was given this name due to a swarm of bees said to have surrounded him at his birth, which his mother took as a sign of his future reign as Emperor of Ethiopia
Emperor of Ethiopia
The Emperor of Ethiopia was the hereditary ruler of Ethiopia until the abolition of the monarchy in 1974. The Emperor was the head of state and head of government, with ultimate executive, judicial and legislative power in that country...

. The names of several places in the modern town and the general layout of the monolithic churches themselves are said to mimic names and patterns observed by Lalibela during the time he spent in Jerusalem and the Holy Land
Holy Land
The Holy Land is a term which in Judaism refers to the Kingdom of Israel as defined in the Tanakh. For Jews, the Land's identifiction of being Holy is defined in Judaism by its differentiation from other lands by virtue of the practice of Judaism often possible only in the Land of Israel...

 as a youth.

Lalibela is said to have seen Jerusalem and then attempted to build a new Jerusalem
New Jerusalem
In the book of Ezekiel, the Prophecy of New Jerusalem is Ezekiel's prophetic vision of a city to be established to the south of the Temple Mount that will be inhabited by the twelve tribes of Israel in the...

 as his capital in response to the capture of old Jerusalem
History of Jerusalem
During its long history, Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times. The oldest part of the city was settled in the 4th millennium BCE, making Jerusalem one of the oldest cities in the world....

 by Muslims in 1187. As such, many features have Biblical names - even the town's river is known as the River Jordan. It remained the capital of Ethiopia from the late 12th century and into the 13th century.

The first European to see these churches was the Portuguese
Portugal , officially the Portuguese Republic is a country situated in southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula. Portugal is the westernmost country of Europe, and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the West and South and by Spain to the North and East. The Atlantic archipelagos of the...

 explorer Pêro da Covilhã
Pêro da Covilhã
Pedro or Pêro da Covilhã was a Portuguese diplomat and explorer.He was a native of Covilhã in Beira. In his early life he had gone to Castile and entered the service of Alphonso, Duke of Seville...

 (1460 – 1526). Portuguese
Portugal , officially the Portuguese Republic is a country situated in southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula. Portugal is the westernmost country of Europe, and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the West and South and by Spain to the North and East. The Atlantic archipelagos of the...

 priest Francisco Álvares
Francisco Álvares
Francisco Álvares was a Portuguese missionary and explorer. In 1515 he traveled to Ethiopia as part of the Portuguese embassy to emperor Lebna Dengel accompanied by returning Ethiopian ambassador Matheus. The embassy arrived only in 1520 to Ethiopia where he joined long sought Portuguese envoy...

 (1465 - 1540), who accompanied the Portuguese Ambassador on his visit to Lebna Dengel in the 1520s. His description of these structures concludes:

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 of these churches in his 1550 printing of Álvares' book, it is not known who supplied him the drawings. The next reported European visitor to Lalibela was Miguel de Castanhoso, who served as a soldier under Christovão da Gama and left Ethiopia in 1544. After de Castanhoso, over 300 years passed until the next European, Gerhard Rohlfs
Friedrich Gerhard Rohlfs
Friedrich Gerhard Rohlfs was a German geographer, explorer, author and adventurer.He was born at Vegesack, now part of Bremen. There was much pressure on Rohlfs to be in the medicine field, and he eventually joined the French Foreign Legion in a medical capacity...

, visited Lalibela at 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 Pankhurst
Richard Pankhurst (academic)
Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst OBE is a British academic with expertise in the study of Ethiopia.-Early life and education:...

 has expressed his skepticism about this event, pointing out that although Sihab ad-Din Ahmad provides a detailed description of a monolithic church ("It was carved out of the mountain. Its pillars were likewise cut from the mountain."), only one church is mentioned; Pankhurst adds that "what is special about Lalibela (as every tourist knows) is that it is the site of eleven or so rock churches, not just one -- and they are all within more or less a stone's throw of each other!" Pankhurst also notes that the Royal Chronicles, which mention Ahmad Gragn's laying waste to the district between July and September 1531, are silent about the Imam ravaging the fabled churches of this city. He concludes with stating that had Ahmad Gragn burned a church at Lalibela, it was most likely Bete Medhane Alem; and if the Muslim army was either mistaken or misled by the locals, then the church he set fire to was Gannata Maryam, "10 miles east of Lalibela which likewise has a colonnade of pillars cut from the mountain".


This rural town is known around the world for its churches carved from the living rock, which play an important part in the history of rock-cut architecture. Though the dating of the churches is not well established, most are thought to have been built during the reign of Lalibela, namely during the 12th and 13th centuries. There are 13 churches, assembled in four groups:

The Northern Group: Bet Medhane Alem, home to the Lalibela Cross
Lalibela Cross
The Lalibela Cross is a large, elaborately decorated processional cross, considered one of Ethiopia's most precious religious and historical heirlooms. It is held by the Bet Medhane Alem, the House of the Redeemer of the World, a 12th century rock-cut church in Lalibela. A priest may rub...

 and believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, probably a copy of St Mary of Zion in Aksum. It is linked to Bete Maryam (possibly the oldest of the churches), Bete Golgotha (known for its arts and said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela), the Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam.

The Western Group: Bete Giyorgis, said to be the most finely executed and best preserved church.

The Eastern Group: Bete Amanuel (possibly the former royal chapel), Bete Merkorios (which may be a former prison), Bete Abba Libanos and Bete Gabriel-Rufael (possibly a former royal palace), linked to a holy bakery
A bakery is an establishment which produces and sells flour-based food baked in an oven such as bread, cakes, pastries and pies. Some retail bakeries are also cafés, serving coffee and tea to customers who wish to consume the baked goods on the premises.-See also:*Baker*Cake...


Farther afield lie the monastery
Monastery denotes the building, or complex of buildings, that houses a room reserved for prayer as well as the domestic quarters and workplace of monastics, whether monks or nuns, and whether living in community or alone .Monasteries may vary greatly in size – a small dwelling accommodating only...

 of Ashetan Maryam and Yimrehane Kristos
Yemrehana Krestos
Yemrehana Krestos was negus of Ethiopia, and a member of the Zagwe dynasty. According to Taddesse Tamrat, he was the son of Germa Seyum, the brother of Tatadim; however the Italian scholar Carlo Conti Rossini published in 1902 a document that stated Yemrehana Krestos was the successor of Na'akueto...

 church (possibly eleventh century, built in the Aksumite fashion but within a cave
A cave or cavern is a natural underground space large enough for a human to enter. The term applies to natural cavities some part of which is in total darkness. The word cave also includes smaller spaces like rock shelters, sea caves, and grottos.Speleology is the science of exploration and study...


There is some controversy as to when some of the churches were constructed. David Buxton established the generally-accepted chronology, noting that "two of them follow, with great fidelity of detail, the tradition represented by Debra Damo as modified at Yemrahana Kristos." Since the time spent to carve these structures from the living rock must have taken longer than the few decades of King Lalibela's reign, Buxton assumes that the work extended into the 14th century. However, David Phillipson, professor of African archeology at Cambridge University, has proposed that the churches of Merkorios, Gabriel-Rufael, and Danagel were initially carved out of the rock half a millennium earlier, as fortifications or other palace structures in the waning days of the Axumite Kingdom, and that Lalibela's name simply came to be associated with them after his death. On the other hand, local historian Getachew Mekonnen credits Masqal Kibra, Lalibela's queen, with having one of the rock-hewn churches (Abba Libanos) built as a memorial for her husband after his death.

Contrary to theories advocated by writers like Graham Hancock
Graham Hancock
Graham Hancock is a British writer and journalist. Hancock specialises in unconventional theories involving ancient civilizations, stone monuments or megaliths, altered states of consciousness, ancient myths and astronomical/astrological data from the past...

, the great rock-hewn churches of Lalibela were not built with the help of the Knights Templar
Knights Templar
The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon , commonly known as the Knights Templar, the Order of the Temple or simply as Templars, were among the most famous of the Western Christian military orders...

; abundant evidence exists to show that they were produced solely by medieval Ethiopian civilization. For example, while Buxton notes the existence of a tradition that "Abyssinians invoked the aid of foreigners" to construct these monolithic churches, and admits that "there are clearly signs of Copt
The Copts are the native Egyptian Christians , a major ethnoreligious group in Egypt....

ic influence in some decorative details" (hardly surprising given the theological, ecclesiastical, and cultural links between the Ethiopian Orthodox
Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is the predominant Oriental Orthodox Christian church in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Church was administratively part of the Coptic Orthodox Church until 1959, when it was granted its own Patriarch by Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All...

 and Coptic Orthodox Churches), he is adamant about the native origins of these creations: "But the significant fact is remains that the rock-churches continue to follow the style of the local built-up prototypes, which themselves retain clear evidence of their basically Axumite origin."

The churches are also 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.

Other features

Lalibela is also home to an airport
Lalibela Airport
HALL redirects here. For other uses, see hall.Lalibela Airport is an airport in Lalibela, Ethiopia . Located at an elevation of 1958 meters above sea level, this airport has one asphalt runway 2435 meters long by 53 wide...

 (ICAO code HALL, IATA LLI), a large market, two schools and a hospital.


Based on figures from the Central Statistical Agency
Central Statistical Agency (Ethiopia)
The Central Statistical Agency is an agency of the government of Ethiopia designated to provide all surveys and censuses for that country used to monitor economic and social growth, as well as to act as an official training center in that field. It is part of the Ethiopian Ministry of Finance and...

 in 2005, the town has an estimated total population of 14,668 of whom 7,049 were males and 7,619 were females. The 1994 national census recorded its population to be 8,484 of whom 3,709 were males and 4,775 were females.

In popular literature

Lalibela is mentioned as "the city of priests and rock-hewn churches" in Tananarive Due
Tananarive Due
Tananarive Due is an American author.-Biography:Tananarive Priscilla Due was born in Tallahassee, Florida, the oldest of three daughters of civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due and civil rights lawyer John D. Due Jr...

's science-fiction novel My Soul to Keep.

Further reading

  • David W. Phillipson, Ancient Churches of Ethiopia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). Chapter 5, "Lalibela: Eastern Complex and Beta Giyorgis"; Chapter 6, "Lalibela: Northern Complex and Conclusions"
  • Sylvia Pankhurst, "Ethiopia: a cultural history" (Lalibela House, Essex, 1955). Chapter 9, "The monolithic churches of Lalibela"
  • Paul B. Henze, "Layers of time: a history of Ethiopia" (Shama Books, Addis Ababa, 2004). Chapter 3: "Medieval Ethiopia: isolation and expansion"
  • Hancock, Graham, Carol Beckwith & Angela Fisher, African Ark - Peoples of the Horn, Chapter I: Prayers of Stone/The Christian Highlands: Lalibela and Axum. Harvill, An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, ISBN 0-00-272780-3

External links