Stacked in the heart of Lalibela town, a small village in northern Ethiopia previously known as Roha, are 11 spectacular medieval churches that were carved from a single volcanic rock some 900 years ago.
The magnificent medieval structures have turned the mountain town into a major attraction site over the years for local and international visitors and pilgrims, especially worshipers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
It is estimated that at least 100,000 visitors tour the town every year.
It is believed that pilgrims to Lalibela share the same blessings as pilgrims to Jerusalem in Israel, and every Orthodox Christian is advised to visit the site at least once in their lifetime.
Since the sacred site is located in the remote part of Ethiopia, the faithful, including children and the disabled, usually walk for days to get here, with many navigating through the rugged mountains barefoot.
Interestingly, all the 11 churches are still in use, with church services and other related ceremonies, such as weddings being celebrated here. Locals say the site is a living heritage.
True Mark of Spirituality & Devotion
The Lalibela site is a place of numerous legends, some of which are factual and others mythical. For instance, it is true that the site derives its name from the famous King Lalibela, who lived in the 12th century.
It’s alleged that one day the king had a dream, where he went to heaven with an angel and was shown a city of rock-hewn churches that he was ordered to replicate. Another story says that Lalibela went in to exile in Jerusalem and was inspired to create a “new” Jerusalem in Roha.
There is also another legend that says King Lalibela was buried beneath a slab on the floor of one of the churches and that the soil of his grave has healing powers.
All the churches at the site are elaborately carved and are underground, connected by tunnels and surrounded by rock-hewn trenches.
One of the main churches is called “Bet Medhane Alem” (“Redeemer of the World”), which resembles an ancient Greek temple. It is said to be the largest monolithic rock-hewn church in the world, measuring 11.5 meters high and covering an area of about 800 square meters.
Its courtyard walls have slots that were originally used as graves or hermits’ caves. It is located next to a courtyard enclosing three more churches, the largest of which is Bet Maryam (House of Mary).
Bet Maryam is said to be the oldest church in Lalibela and remains the most popular church among Ethiopians mainly due to its association with the virgin Mary. Chiseled in to the northern wall of Bet Maryam’s courtyard is a tiny chapel known as Bet Meskel, and in the southern wall is a smaller chapel called Bet Danaghel (“House of the Virgin Martyrs”).
A third courtyard in the northwest of the cluster carries the twin churches of Bet Debre Sina (“House of Mount Sinai”), also referred to as “Bet Mikael” (House of Michael) and “Bet Golgotha.” Women are prohibited from entering Bet Golgotha, which contains seven life-size reliefs of saints carved around the walls.
Lalibela churches are a true symbol of the exceptional devotion and spirituality of the people of Ethiopia. Every day, there are dozens of worshipers leaning against the structures, kissing the ancient rock walls, praying quietly or reading religious manuscripts.