In a precipitous city Lalibela found in northern Ethiopia in the heart of Ethiopia, some 645 km from Addis Ababa, eleven medieval monolithic churches were carved out of rock. Their building is endorsed to King Lalibela who set out to erect in the 12th century a ‘New Jerusalem’, Lalibela flourished after the decline of the Aksum Empire.
There are two main groups of churches – to the north of the river Jordan: Biete Medhani Alem(House of the Saviour of the World),BieteMariam (House of Mary), BieteMaskal (House of the Cross), Biete Denagel (House of Virgins), Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael); and to the south of the river, Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercoreos), Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos), Biete Gabriel Raphael (House of Gabriel Raphael), and Biete Lehem (House of Holy Bread). The eleventh church, Biete Ghiorgis (House of St. George), is isolated from the others, but connected by a system of trenches.
There are 13 churches, assembled in four groups: The Northern Group: Bet Medhane Alem, home to the Lalibela Cross and believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, most likely 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, 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. Farther afield lie the monastery of Ashetan Maryam and Yimrehane Kristos church (possibly eleventh century, built in the Aksumitefashion but within a cave.
What to see in Lalibela
Bete Medhane Alem
This church is measuring 37.7m in length, 23.7m in width and 11.5m in height, Bette Medhane Alem is the largest rock- hewn massive church in the world with 72 giant pillars. Explore the 800 year old Lalibela cross that was stolen in 1997 and returned from Belgium to its home in 1999 and many other invaluable antiques inside; including the conspicuous empty graves emblematically chiseled for Abraham, Isaac and Jacobs in the courtyard.
Standing on a platform in a trapezoid excavation without porches, Bete Mariam (is a one storey monolithic church. The most colorful holiday celebration Christmas has been carried out in this firstly built church. Visit the baptismal containing holly water bas-relief of two riders fighting a dragon, multiplicity forms of crosses and impressive ancient paintings in the same courtyard. Bete Mariam is the most internally ornamented and painted church in Lalibela. The paintings represent biblical stories.
The chapel of Bete Meskel that measures 11m in length and 3.4m width has been excavated in a inflammation in the northern wall of Bete Maryam patio. Here, the ancient wooden menber (container of the tabote or ark), the cross carved in release below stylized undergrowth on one of spandrels of the arches and the hermits that inhabit the large caves in the courtyard are also worth a vacation. Nearby are the little chapel of Bete Deneghel and the 20thc. Memorial to Ras Kassa Darge who was the governor of central and northwestern Ethiopia.
Bete -Denagil is a semi-monolithic rock hewn church carved in the south façade of Bete- mariam courtyard. It is partly prophetic (outside) and partly grotto (in a cave). It has two doors from the outside view, one in the inside and a false window to the north. It is believed to have been devoted to the 36 saint women who were among the 120 family members of Jesus Christ.
Bete Golgota & Bete Debre-sina
Golgotha is the most puzzling church housing its holiest set apart place the silassie chapel, symbol of tomb of Adam and tomb of king Lalibela. Here, you can see surprising pieces of early Christian Ethiopian art: symbolic relief’s that are exceptional elsewhere in Ethiopia. The bas-relief figures of the 12 apostles; Lalibela’s age old hand cross and his rod Bete Golgotha is closed for women. Nearby are the buildings of Bete Mikael, Bethlehem, and bête Keranio.
Suspiciously sculptured from a block unit. Bete Amanuel is the only true monolithic structure of this group. Art historians consider Bete Amanuel to be the most extraordinary and finest church in Lalibela. It is a home for ruins of blessed bees that prophesy Kingship to Lalibela and graves of monks and pilgrims who wanted to be buried here. From the heart Bete Amanuel is a true church plan which contains five bays, a mighty arched nave and two isles and a condemned sanctuary.
Bete merkorios is the most gravely smashed cave like rock hewn church in Lalibela. It had to some extent collapsed and became irregular in shape. The church is dedicated to a martyr of Rome, St. Merkorios which recalls the contacts of early Christian Ethiopia with the Roman Empire.
Bete Aba Libanos
Bete Aba- Libanos is a good example of a cave church. The roof is not separated from the rock, but the other three sides are standing apart by a channel. Here priests will tell you that there is a little light in the middle of the altar wall shining day and night by its power. Nearby is monastery village of Lalibela, where many monks and nuns live in tiny caves.
Bete Gabriel- Rufael
Bete Gabriel is a two storey building with unusual windows. The monumental northern part facing Bete Gebriel is the most impressive feature. It is decorated with logical niche whose top shape is similar to the top part of the Axumite Stella. The ancient parchment document (800 years-old) and two crosses are possessions that attract a visitor’s attention. A Pass through the dark and narrow ridge of rock chiseled to symbolize the “path to heaven”.
The monolithic Bete Giorgis, which constitutes the 3rd group and architecturally stylish, symbolizes Noh’s Ark. Its superiority is discovered in its cruciform floor plan, relief of three equilateral crosses on the roof and straight relief cross in the eastern arm of the church. Two crosses of the Lalibela period and a wooden box in which Saint Lalibela used to put his pristine statuette tools, and usually locked by wooden nuts are worth visiting. The presence of this box here signifies that Bete Giorgis is the lastly hewn church.
Lying 42 kms northwest of Lalibela, Yemrehane Kristos is without a doubt the finest church outside the town. Extraordinarily, the church is built rather than excavated with in a cave. The whole church rests on a foundation of suspiciously laid olivewood panels, which propose it perfectly above the muddy ground below. Lookout the bones of numerous pilgrims who chose to be buried here, and tombs that include remnants of Yemrehane Kristos at the back of the church. Nearby are the churches of Arbatu Ensesa, Bilbila Chirkos and Bilbila Giorgis. Bilibila Giorgis resemble Bete Abba Libanos in design.
The church of Asheten Maryam sits atop a mountain that rises above Lalibela to an altitude of nearly 400m. There are commanding views in all directions. The monastery was started during King Lalibela’s reign but finished under king Na’ akuto La’ab. The journey takes you through a lovely countryside. Listen out for the witchlike cackle of the francolins resounding around the valley.
Lying 6km, from Lalibela, the monastery of Na’akuto La’ab was built by king Lalibela’s nephew and descendant Na’akuto La ‘ab. It is an attractive little church built around a cave. Some very old stone receptacles collect the precious holly water as it drips from the cave roof. Visit the various treasures belonged to its founder including crosses crowns, an illuminated bible, and a metallic drum.