11 amazing Lalibela Churches you should visit, and their mystery

Lalibela churches are one of the most marvelous pieces of architecture you would see in Africa. Lalibela churches are considered as the 8th wonders of the world, next to the seven that UNSECO identified. These churches still survive, centuries later, in a small town called Lalibela.

Lalibela is a small ancient town in the Northern part of Ethiopia and is known for its religious buildings and its history. The town contains rock-cut monolithic churches that were part of the medieval civilization that the country was in.

Lalibela is thought to be hugely influenced by Aksum (Axum). The Architecture and the religious influence are visible on the buildings. Lalibela was also influenced by Jerusalem and wanted to be the second Jerusalem, especially after the middle east Jerusalem fell under the Islamic influence at the time.

The river in the town and other buildings have biblical names.

There are 11 rock-hewn Lalibela churches and the two are monolithic sanctuaries, namely Bete Hawariat and Bete Estifanos. Lalibela is majorly a tourist city, unveiling its history and attracting the economy in return. Many people in the town live dependent on these religious and historic artifacts. The society also lives around these edifices, where these are geographic and Thousands of visitors travel to see them every year.

The churches, in the center of the city, are located on the other side of a small stream, from each other. A seasonal stream called Jordan separates the northern side churches from the east. Beite Giyorgis, saint George building stands in the sloping rock terrace in the southwest of the churches.

The Northern side of river Jordan churches:

  1. Bete Maryam, ‘House of Mary’
  2. Bete Meskel, ‘House of the Cross’
  3. Bete Denagel, ‘House of Virgins’
  4. Bete Medhane Alem, ‘House of the Saviour of the World’
  5. Bete Golgotha Mikael, ‘House of Golgotha Mikael’

The Eastern Group:

  1. Bete Amanuel, ‘House of Immanuel’
  2. Bete Gabriel-Rufael, ‘House of the angels Gabriel, and Raphael’
  3. Bete Qeddus Mercoreus, ‘House of Saint Mercurius’
  4. Bete Lehem, ‘Bethlehem’
  5. Bete Abba Libanos ‘House of Abbot Libanos’

The Western side churches:

  1. Church of Saint George

1. Bete Mariam, ‘House of Miriam/House of Mary’ Lalibela churches

Lalibela church medhane alem door"medhane alem door" by nicholaslaughlin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Edited “medhane alem door” by nicholaslaughlin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

Being one of the oldest churches in the town, Beite Mariam is a UNESCO heritage. The building was built with a concept of the Tombs of Adam, the first man, and Christ, the savior, the second man. Beite Mariam Lalibela church is a one-story monolithic building with seven rooms.

The church is thought to be built during the reign of the Zagwe dynasty, at the time of Gebre Mesqel Lalibela. The churches were made between the 11th and 13th centuries.

The exterior walls have a molding decoration that runs horizontally across the walls and the three rows of windows gave the church a memorable image. The rows on the upper side of the windows are plain and are rectangular without any fillings while the rows on the lower end are carefully decorated with various cross image.

The interior of Bete Mariam is a fully developed cathedral, decorated with icon diagrams of St. Marry and St. Joseph, Star of David, Seal of Solomon, cross symbols. A semi-circular gallery is located on the first floor consisting of seven rooms.

With a trapezoidal courtyard, the church’s courtyard is used for a religious celebration space especially during the Christmas season. In between the courtyard is a deep rectangular pool that is believed to make a barren fertile with a blessing from priests. The people bath in the pool looking for a miracle. 

2. Bete Meskel, ‘House of the Cross’

Bete Meskel also means a house of the cross. It is an underground monolithic church carved out of and into a rock. The church is also part of the UNESCO heritage site. It is believed the building was built during the Axum Kingdom.

Image by RogueAngel is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

3. Bete Denagel, ‘House of Virgins’ Lalibela Church

Beite Denagel has church arts and decorations that are unique to Lalibela churches.

4. Bete Medhane Alem, ‘House of the Savior of the World’ Lalibela Churches

Being one of the largest monolithic churches in the world, Bete Medahane Alem is one of the most impressive monolithic churches in Lalibela. Since it is a place for Lalibela cross, it is an important edifice.

Bete Medane Alem has resemblance with St. Mary of Zion of Axum and is thought to be an imitation of the church.

The walkways and the tunnels connect Bete Medhane Alem with one of the oldest churches of Bete Maryam. The east side of the Bete Medhane Alem wall of the Lalibela church is a display of geometric carved windows in a vertical line. Axum shaped crosses and Latin crosses are also seen on the church walls. 

5. Bete Golgotha Mikael, ‘House of Golgotha Mikael’

Bete Golgtha Mikael was renovated and reopened in 2018. The Lalibela church is a monolithic church carved out of soft volcanic tuff. It was built in the 12th century by King Lalibela. With its pilgrimage symbols, the church has been a destination for many visitors and religious people.

The deteriorating Bete Golgotha Mikael church has cracks and the outer part is eroded during rainy seasons.

lalibela church"DSCF0549" by Giustino is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“DSCF0549” by Giustino is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

6. Bete Amanuel, ‘House of Immanuel’

Bete Amanuel is another underground monolithic rock-cut Lalibela church. The church building shows the Axum construction prints more than any of the other Lalibela churches. The building is believed to be a royal prayer house of King Lalibela and his family.

Bete Amanuel is a three-story building in which the ground floor in cross-shaped, the first floor is arched over, and the second is square-headed.

Inside the courtyard on the ground, it is accessed by three gates, of which is from Bete Merkorious. The Bete Amanuel church is fascinating. Its wall is carved with horizontal strips that go around the walls. It has 24 external columns and 45 small windows. Stairs carved into the rocks, take one to the first floor.

The Axum influence is clearly displayed in this church. The external façade followed Axumite style of alternating recessed and projecting stonework, and the ancient Ethiopian wood and stone method of construction.

The rectangular church is purely monolithic and is carefully placed amidst the center of a quadrilateral courtyard. It is a

The external walls are richly decorated with horizontal carving decorations on the external walls and alternating vertical and horizontal moldings on the four facades of the Lalibela church are impressive. The three-row windows have their own unique characters. The lower windows are cross-shaped, the middle is round-arched with capitals, and the uppers are square-headed. The bottom and the top windows exhibit frames with corner posts of Axumite style. The top row windows have no fillings.

Like the others, it has three doorways; the main entrance is on the west wall accessible by four steps.

“Igrejas de Lalibela, Etiópia” by Samuel Santos is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

7. Bete Gabriel-Rufael, ‘House of the angels Gabriel, and Raphael’ Lalibela Churches

Bete Gabriel-Rufael is a different church in its architecture and service. This single-story Lalibela church is connected to a mountain and accessed by wooden bridges to its story level. The ground floor of this church is filled with water and cannot be accessed.

Amazingly the gate of the ground floor gives no service.

The church has eight external columns, of which five of them continued to the ground floor and the rest three remain at the upper floor.

Internally, there are two columns. It has a short room height relative to the others. Bete Rufael and Bete Gabriel are situated under a single roof. Inside Bete Rafael, there is one huge column and two windows.

Externally its wall has recessed slots inscribing windows. The two doors have a wider veranda. It has a wider door at the south that takes to Eucharist Kitchen, to a store and to other caves, which are too wide. Its western gate takes to Bete Rufael. Traveling through the cave, you can find a wooden gate that was constructed by Lalibela.

Bete Gabriel is a church located between two deep channels on the north and south side. The monumental northern facade is decorated with ogival niches whose top shape is similar to the Axumite stales.  

8. Bete Qeddus Mercoreus, ‘House of Saint Mercurius’

Another underground church built during the kingdom of Axum. It is thought to have been a prison as ankle shackles were found there.

9. Bete Golgotha Mikael, ‘House of Golgotha Mikael’

Bete Golgotha is known for its artwork and carvings of saints on the walls. It is believed to be a place where the tomb of King Lalibela and has a gold-draped Ark over the grave. The Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam also reside there.

Bete Debre Sinai and Bete Golgotha are twin churches. A tunnel at the western end of Bete Mariam leads to the twin churches.

The east side Golgotha and the west Debre Sinai are semi-monolithic and separated by a rock wall. These are connected within the trenches that is 10 meters below the surface. The churches appear as one when viewed from outside and the local people called them Bete Golgotha-Michael as a single church.

Lalibela Ethiopia map

10. Bete Lehem, ‘Bethlehem’

Bete Lehem is underground monolith church, created during the kingdom of Axum.

11. Bete Abba Libanos, ‘House of Abbot Libanos’

Bete Abba Libanos is an underground rock-cut monolith Lalibela church.

bete giyorgis lalibela church

12. Church of Saint George (Bet Ghiorgis), ‘St. George’s’

Located on the western side of the cluster of churches, Bete Ghiorgis is cut 40 feet down and its roof forms the shape of a simple cross. It was built after Lalibela’s death in 1220 by his widow as a memorial to the saint-king.

The plan was to make a new Jerusalem with measured dimensions and precisions.

Unlike some of the other churches, St. George’s is plain inside. A curtain covers away from the place called the Holy of Holies, and a priest stands Infront exhibiting books and paintings to visitors. A Tabot, a copy of the Ark of the Covenant, is thought to be in one of the wings in the spaces.

Bete Ghiorgis, which is a distinctively cross-shaped Lalibela church. This is believed to be the last work of Lalibela. It is situated far from the other two groups of churches and accessed through the cave. The building stands inside the courtyard. Narrow and with horizontal bands, the walls appear symmetric and visually bold.

It is decorated by two rows of windows, 9 blind windows in the bottom row are blind and emulate the Axumite framework. The 12 windows in the upper row have ogival arches and bracket capitals.

The church has three doors in the west, north, and south and at the main entrance in the west, you will find seven steps as a representation as seven skies, heavens.      

The Lalibela churches have one thing in common, that is these are carved out of a single rock. These have articulations that are unique to each of the churches. The Lalibela churches are an impressive tourist destination, and some even call them 8th wonders of the world. The Lalibela town is rather small but holds great historic edifices. If you plan to visit Ethiopia, then you need to see Lalibela.

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