Historical Attractions


Lalibela is a town in northern Ethiopia, Semien Wollo Zone of the Amhara ethnic division. Its name derived from King Lalibela of the Zagwe dynasty, which ruled Ethiopia from the late 12th to the 13th century. It is one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities and is a center of pilgrimage for much of the country.

Unlike Aksum, the population of Lalibela is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and was intended to be a New Jerusalem in response to the capture of Jerusalem by Muslims. Many of Lalibelas features and historic buildings have Biblical names and take their name and layout from buildings in Jerusalem. Even the town’s river is known as the River Jordan. Lalibela remained the capital of Ethiopia from the late 12th century and into the 13th century.

King Lalibela is credited with the foundation of the 11 rock-hewn churches in the 12th century. One of the world’s most incredible man-made creations, they are a lasting monument to man’s faith in God. Most travel writers describe these churches as the “eighth wonder of the world”. These remarkable edifices were carved out of a solid rock, in a region where the ragged landscape still protects the churches from mass tourism. The 11 man-made churches are found in and around the town of Lalibela. Other churches are reached by a 45-minutes drive, or a three hour ride on mule-back. The venue for some of the most famous church festivals in Ethiopia, a visit during the great celebrations of Genna (Christmas) and Timket (Epiphany,) is particularly rewarding.

During the reign of Saint Lalibela, the current town of Lalibela was known as Roha. The saintly king was given this name due to a swarm of bees said to have surrounded him at his birth, which his mother took as a sign of his future reign as Emperor of Ethiopia. Lalibela is said to have seen Jerusalem and then attempted to build a new Jerusalem. As indicated above, the names of several places in the modern town and the general layout of the monolithic churches themselves are said to mimic names and patterns observed by Lalibela during the time he spent in Jerusalem and the Holy Land as a youth.

This rural town is known around the world for its monolithic churches, which were built during the reign of Lalibela. There are 11 churches, assembled in three groups: The Northern Group: Bete Medhane Alem, home to the Lalibela Cross and believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, probably a copy of St Mary of Zion in Aksum. It is linked to Bete Maryam, which is possibly the oldest of the churches; Bete Golgotha which is known for its arts and said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela; the Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam.

The Western Group is Bete Giyorgis. It is said to be the most finely executed and best preserved church. The Eastern Group is 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 and linked to a holy bakery.

In contrast to certain spurious myths, the great rock-hewn churches of Lalibela were not built with the help of the Knights Templar; rather, they were produced solely by medieval Ethiopian civilization. However, there is controversy as to when the churches were constructed. Some scholars believe that the churches were built well before Lalibela and that Lalibela simply named them after himself.