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What is Lalibela?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Lalibela is a town in northern Ethiopia. The town is primarily known for the amazing rock-hewn churches. The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela have been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1978.

When Jerusalem was captured by the Muslims in the 12th century, the Ethiopian Christians built Lalibela as a sort of New Jerusalem. Construction was overseen by king Gebre Mesqel Lalibela. The last part of his name, which lent its name to the town, comes from a story that at his birth he was surrounded by a swarm of bees, a foreshadowing that he would one day become the Emperor of Ethiopia.

Because of its role as a New Jerusalem, many of the natural and man made features of Lailibela are named after features in Jerusalem itself. The river that runs through the town is the River Jordan, and some buildings have names that herald back to buildings in Jerusalem.

Like Aksum, Lalibela is a town designed around the idea of the fortress. Fighting off Muslims, and becoming increasingly fearful of an Islamic incursion, Ethiopian rulers became more and more fixated on providing security for their citizens, and creating cities that were impenetrable.

For more than a century Lalibela served as the secular capital of Ethiopia, but for many years after its secular decline it continued to be a profoundly important holy city for Ethiopian Christians. Even today it is second only to Aksum in terms of importance to the devout. In spite of this, the city has declined greatly in population, from once being a thriving metropolis, to now being a rather sleepy village of less than 15,000 people.

The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela are truly a sight to behold, and are at once incredibly beautiful, and incredibly demonstrative of the isolationist stance the Ethiopian Christians held for so many years, surrounded as they were by hostile neighbors. There are twelve churches in all, separated into four distinct groups, each with its own peculiarities.

The Northern Group of the Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela is without a doubt the most famous. It contains the Bete Medhane Alem, which holds the Lalibela Cross, and is the largest monolithic church in the world. It also contains the Tomb of Adam and the Selassie Chapel, the Bete Maryam, which is the oldest church in the group, and the Bete Golgotha.

The Eastern Group of the Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela contains the Bete Amanuel, a bakery, the former palace of Bete Gabriel-Rufael, Bete Abba Libanos, and Bete Merkorios. The Western Group of the Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela is known for Bete Giyorgis, which is the church which has best held up over the years.

There is some question about whether the Rock-Hewn Churches were actually carved entirely during or after the reign of Lalibela, or whether some were begun far earlier. There is evidence to suggest that some of the churches were originally carved as fortified buildings hundreds of years before they were converted to churches.

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