Lalibela is a town in northern Ethiopia famous for its monolithic rock-cut churches sunk into the ground and built between the 7th and 13th centuries. These churches are one of the nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ethiopia. What makes them different is that they were not constructed stone by stone, instead they were constructed by removing pieces from a single piece of rock using only hammers and chisels. It is an incredible feat and employs a similar technique to the Ajanta and Ellora Cave temples in India built in an earlier time. Many of you may not know that Ethiopia adopted Christianity back in the 4th century and is actually one of the earliest nations to do so. The population here in Lalibela is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and the town is one of the holiest cities in Ethiopia as well as an important pilgrimage site. Lalibela was once the capital of Ethiopia from the 12th to 13th century under the rule of Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela. The emperor claimed to have visited Jerusalem and aimed to build a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia. Hence, the names of places and the way the churches are laid out are similar to Jerusalem. There are two main clusters of churches here, one representing earthly Jerusalem and the other heavenly Jerusalem. There is a trench representing River Jordan separating the two clusters. The short flight from Addis Ababa to Lalibela took about an hour. We were picked up by our prearranged driver and guide and were taken to the Mountain View Hotel for an early lunch before starting our sightseeing of the rock cut churches. I think spending two full days in the area is enough to see all the important sites. The 11 churches identified by Unesco are open for visitors from 6am to 12:30pm and then again at 2:30pm to 5:30pm. It is important to keep in mind that these spectacular churches are all carved out of the ground. They are all carved from an unbroken piece of rock from the inside downwards and outwards and are connected to one another by a series of tunnels.
First we visited the most impressive Bet Giyorgis and the northern cluster of churches including Bet Medhane Alem, Bet Maryam, Bet Meskel, Bet Denagel, Bet Golgotha and Bet Mikael. Bet Giyorgis or Church of Saint George is the most famous of the Lalibela churches. This monolithic rock-cut church is the last built and is constructed in the shape of a cross in honour of St. George who is the patron saint of Ethiopia. It is excavated 12 meters into the ground and when you first arrive, all you can see is the roof in the shape of a cross. The church has 3 doors and 12 windows with a cross and floral motif carved in relief above each window. There is an additional 9 false windows at the same level as the doors. The interior is covered with wall paintings some depicting the life of St George who was said to have supervised the construction of the church. Legend has it that Bet Giyorgis was built after King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela had a dream in which he was instructed by God and St George to build the church.
Bet Medhane Alem or Church of the Saviour of the World is a rock-cut underground church that looks more like a Greek temple than a traditional Ethiopian church. It is said to be the largest rock-cut church in the world with a barrel vaulted nave, four aisles, and 38 columns. It is also home to the 7kg gold Lalibela Cross. Inside the church in the corner, there are 3 empty graves said to be symbolically for Abraham, Issac, and Jacob.
Bet Maryam or Church of Saint Mary is believed to be the oldest of the Lalibela churches and is said to be a replica of the Tombs of Adam and Christ. It is connected to Bet Medhane Alem by a tunnel and is much smaller in size but more highly decorated. It is the only church here with porches and above the western porch is a rare bas-relief of St George fighting the dragon. The windows here all have their meanings. On the eastern wall, there are two rows of three windows. The upper three windows are thought to represent the Holy Trinity and the lower three, the crucifixion of Jesus and the two sinners. There is a small opening above the lower right window symbolizing that the sinner was accepted to heaven after repenting his sins. The lower window on the left has a small opening below it symbolizing that this sinner went down to hell. The ceiling inside has early frescoes and you can still see the beautiful carvings on the columns. There is a holy column with inscriptions on the eastern end of the nave that is always covered in cloth.
Bet Meskel or Church of the Holy Cross is carved into the northern wall of Bet Maryam courtyard. It only has one facade with ten blind arcades said to represent the Ten Commandments. Inside there is a large relief cross decorating the ceiling.
Bet Denagel or Church of Virgins is carved into the southern facade of Bet Maryam courtyard and is the least impressive of the churches.
Bet Golgotha and Bet Mikael are twin churches to the southern end of the Maryam courtyard. These two churches are the only ones in Lalibela to have cruciform pillars. You must first enter Bet Mikael in order to enter Bet Golgotha. Unfortunately, women are not allowed inside Bet Golgotha which is known for some the of earliest examples of Ethiopian Christian art. In any case, these twin churches were closed for renovations during our visit.
The southeastern cluster of churches representing heavenly Jerusalem includes Bet Gabriel-Rufael, Bet Merkorios, Bet Amanual, and Bet Abba Libanos. Bet Gabriel-Rufael or Church of Gabriel and Rafael is the only church that is accessed from the top via a rock bridge known as the “Way to Heaven”. Rather than a cross-shaped layout, it has an irregular floor plan leading archaeologists to speculate that this may have been built as a palace rather than a church. This is a twin church complex where you enter Bet Gabriel first and then another doorway leads to Bet Rufael. There are Aksumite windows with little pointed arches on top. It is surprisingly small and plain inside with 3 crosses.
A long and dark tunnel leads from Bet Gabriel-Rufael to Bet Merkorios or Church of Merkorios. It is believed that Bet Merkorios has been a prison or a court house because of the ankle shackles found here. A large part of this church has collapsed and there are ugly support brick walls here.
Bet Amanuel or Church of Emanuel is believed to have been the royal family chapel because it is one of the best carved churches. It is built in the Aksumite style with alternating layers of stone and wood. There are chambers in the walls where pilgrims are buried. Underneath the church is a long underground tunnel that connects Bet Amanuel to Bet Merkorios, and Bet Gabriel-Rufael.
Bet Abba Libanos or Church of Libanos is the only cave church among the 11 Unesco churches and also the only one where only the roof and floor are attached to the surrounding rock. Legend has it that Bet Abba Libanos was built overnight by King Lalibela’s wife Meskei Kebra with the help of angels.
Other than these 11 Unesco churches of Lalibela, there are also some other cave churches worth visiting in the area. In the next post I will talk about the semi-cave church of Nakutoleab and Yemrehanna Kristos Church. Stay tuned!
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