6 Uncovered Lalibela Churches and Their Astonishing Architecture

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The Lalibela churches are located in the center of the town surrounded by the houses of villagers. It is also quite clear that the churches have been the bases for the beginning of settlement pattern and development of the town.

Historical and traditional sources show that the construction of the Lalibela churches preceded the establishment of the town.

The well-known rock-hewn Lalibela churches are eleven in number; but there are two monolithic sanctuaries that have been recently found, which are Bete Hawariat and Bete Estifanos, this makes the total number of Lalibela churches are twelve.

According to their location, they are divided into three groups (2 main groups), separated by the seasonal river Jordan. The first group comprises six Lalibela churches located north of the Jordan River, while the second group comprises four Lalibela churches situated south of the Jordan River.

Bete Ghiorgis is located in isolation on a sloping rock terrace southwest of both the first and the second group of churches.

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Bete Mariam (House of Miriam/House of Mary)

Possibly the oldest of the Lalibela churches, and a replica of the Tombs of Adam and Christ. Bete Mariam is the central Lalibela church in the first group surrounded by a trapezoidal courtyard. It is a one-story monolithic building with seven rooms and it is the first work of Lalibela as said locally.

The wider courtyard of Bete Mariam has a special place in Lalibela, mainly because it is used for the sacred dances during Christmas. On the floor of the surrounding courtyard, there is a deep rectangular pool, which is locally believed to make barren women fertile if they bathe there and get the blessing of a priest.

Bete Mariam is a rectangular church and from the exterior moldings running horizontally around the walls. The three rows of windows are better viewed from the outside, for which Bête Mariam is the most famous for.

The upper rows of windows are undecorated and rectangular without any fillings. The lower row windows are decorated with a variety of cross forms, which are very impressive. There are more than nine varieties of crosses including the swastika.

The interior of Bete Mariam is a fully developed basilica. It is decorated with icon graphs of St. Marry and Joseph, Star David (Shield of David), Seal of Solomon, Swastika symbols, two headed bird and St. George icon graph at the west gate. It consists of the narthex, a nave, two aisles and a domed sanctuary. The nave and aisles are formed between two rows of five rectangular pillars. The church also has a semi-circular gallery on the first floor (mezzanine floor), consisting of seven rooms.

Bete Medhane Alem (House of the Savior of the World)

In the “Northern Group” across the main road from St. George, the most notable church is Beta Medhane Alem, home to the Lalibela Cross and believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world. It is thought to be a copy of St. Mary of Zion in Axum.

Bete Medhane Alem is linked by walkways and tunnels to Beta Maryam (St. Mary’s), possibly the oldest of the Lalibela churches. In the east wall of the church is an array of geometric carved windows in a vertical line. From the bottom up is a Maltese cross in a square; a semi-circle shape like that on the Axum stelae; a Latin cross; and a simple square window.

Bete Gabriel-Rufael (House of the angels Gabriel, and Raphael)

A one-story structure connected to the mountain and accessed by wooden bridges to its story level. The ground floor of this church is filled with water and gives no service. The gate to the ground floor is not still known.

It 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 one roof. Inside Bete Rafael, there is one huge column and two windows.

Externally its wall has recessed slots inscribing windows. The two doors have wider veranda. It has wider door at the south that takes to Eucharist Kitchen, store and amazing caves, which are too wide. Its western gate takes to Bete Rufael. Travelling through the cave way, a gate of wood which was during Lalibela’s time is confronted.

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“Drum” by Andrea Kirkby is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Bete Gabriel is a church located between two trenches on the north and south. The monumental northern facade is very beautiful. It is ornamented with ogival niches whose top shape is similar to the top part of the Ax- umite stele.

In addition, the two niches contain two doors in Axumite style, and five of them are windows. Near Bete Gabriel, there is a curved band of rock locally called “the path to Heaven” or “Meferareja” as locally said. Another important part of the Bete Gabriel complex is a well and underground cistern down in the courtyard.

Bete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael)

Bete Golgotha is known for its artwork which includes life-sized carvings of saints on the walls. It is also home to the tomb of King Lalibela, over which stands a gold-draped Ark. The Western group is completed by the Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam.

Bete Debre Sinai and Bete Golgotha are twin Lalibela churches. A tunnel at the western end of Bete Mariam leads to the twin Lalibela churches. They are six meters below the level of this courtyard (both are semi-monolithic and separated by a wall, east of which is Golgotha and to the west is Debre Sinai).

Access to the Lalibela churches is through a surrounding trench, which is 10.5 meters deep. The twin Lalibela churches appear from outside as one and are usually referred to together by the local people as Bete Golgotha Michael.

Bete Amanuel (House of Immanuel)

The most beautiful of all that depicts Axumites construction more than any other Lalibela’s work is his ninth work Bete Amanuael. This was believed to be the prayer house of Lalibela and his family. It is inside a court yard of mountain and accessed by three gates one of which is from Bete Merkorious. Its wall is carved with horizon- tal strips. It has 24 external columns and 45 windows. Its upper floor level is approached by a monolithic stair.

It is the only purely monolithic and carefully hewn church of the second group at the center of a quadrilateral courtyard. It is a rectangular church. The external facade shows the Axumite style of alternating recessed and projecting stonework. It imitates the old Ethiopian wood and stone method of construction, so that it offers an almost classic example of the Axumite style, more so than any other church in Lalibela.

The external walls are richly decorated with horizontal carvings, which make it very elaborate in appearance. The alternating vertical and horizontal moldings on the four facades of the church from the base up to the summit are impressive. There are three rows of windows displayed in the facades.

The lower windows are cross-shaped, those in the middle are round-arched with capitals, and the upper ones are square-headed. The bottom and the top windows display fully developed frames with corner posts of Axumite style.

The top row windows have no fillings. As usual, it has three doorways; the main entrance is on the west wall accessible by four steps. Bete Anamuel 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.

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

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There are 11 rock-cut churches at Lalibela, the most spectacular of which is Bet Giorgis (St. George’s). Located on the western side of the cluster of Lalibela churches, it is cut 40 feet down and its roof forms the shape of a Greek cross. It was built after Lalibela’s death (c.1220) by his widow as a memorial to the saint-king. It is a magnificent culmination of Lalibela’s plans to build a New Jerusalem, with its perfect dimensions and geometrical precision.

Unlike some of the other Lalibela churches, St. George’s is plain inside. A curtain shields the Holy of Holies, and in front of it usually stands a priest displaying books and paintings to visitors. In the shadows of one of the arms of the cruciform church is its tabot or copy of the Ark of the Covenant.

Bete Ghiorgis, which is distinctively cross-shaped, is the last work of Lalibela. It is situated far from the other two groups of  Lalibela churches and accessed in a cave way.

The building is inside the courtyard which is perforated by caves holding remains of holy peoples. Its walls, going up, slightly narrow, but horizontal bands of different width make an optical illusion so that it appears perfectly symmetric and monumental.

It is decorated by two rows of windows. The nine windows in the bottom row are blind and imitate the Axumite “monkey-head” framework. The twelve windows in the upper row have ogival arches and bracket capitals.

It has three doors in the west, north, and south. The main entrance in the west is approached by seven wide steps (representing the seven heavens). The main doorway has a shallow porch ornamented by simple moldings. Its rooftop is concentrically cross-shaped and stepped down to drain the rooftop through stone spout centered at each arm of the cross.

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