Eleven ancient churches carved from solid rock can be seen at Lalibela, northern Ethiopia. These architectural wonders are named after a 12th century king who aspired to build a ‘New Jerusalem’. Lalibela is a UNESCO World Heritage site, visited annually by thousands of pilgrims and tourists from all over the world.
The city of Aksum became a great Christian centre in the 4th century CE, but declined with the spread of Islam three centuries later. Lalibela succeeded it as a new centre of Christianity in the second millennium CE, under the rule of the Zagwe dynasty. Construction of the rock-cut churches is often attributed to King Lalibela, who reigned from 1189 –1229 CE. At the time of Lalibela’s reign, the holy city of Jerusalem was under Muslim occupation. According to legend, Lalibela had a vision of rock-cut churches while unconscious after being poisoned by a would-be assassin, but survived to realise his dream of a New Jerusalem.
The churches, were hewn from the soft rock of the Lasta Mountains, in Ethiopia’s Amhara region. Some are carved into the mountainside, but others, known as monolithic churches, are entirely detached. Several are surrounded by deep trenches and connected by underground passages.
Recent work by archaeologist Professor David Phillipson has shown that some structures predate Lalibela’s reign. Excavations and studies of architectural features suggest that some were probably built between 600 and 800 CE, as defensive structures or fortified residences. Other churches were built after Lalibela’s death.
Aksum and Jerusalem
Many of the Lalibela churches replicate details of Aksumite buildings, in homage to that city’s former greatness. The freestanding church known as Beta Medhane Alem is thought to be a replica of a cathedral that once stood in Aksum. 30 metres long, it is the largest Lalibela church, with an impressive exterior colonnade. The settlement also makes many references to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, featuring a Church of Golgotha, a canal named after the River Jordan and a Tomb of Adam.
One of Lalibela’s most celebrated churches is Beta Gyorgis, dedicated to St George, Ethiopia’s patron saint. It was probably built in the 13th century CE. Set slightly apart from the other churches, it is built in a deep trench, with a floor plan shaped like a cross. Its false windows recall Aksumite design. Inside is a fresco of Saint George slaying the dragon, and low relief sculptures of crosses and saints.
Heritage under threat
The Lalibela churches are still in use, but tens of thousands of religious pilgrims as well as heavy tourist visitation threaten the site. The Medhane Alem and Emmanuel churches are especially vulnerable. The site has huge historical importance and is an important source of tourist revenue for Ethiopia. Organisations worldwide and individuals, including Haile Selassie’s daughter, have dedicated resources to ensure Lalibela’s future survival.
The Lalibela Churches:
Merkurios; Gabriel-Raphael; Bethlehem; Danaghel; Medhane Alem; Emmanuel; Maryam; Gyorgis; Golgotha; Mikael; Abba Libanos