A Rough Guide to Lalibella Ethiopia and Churches

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Lalibella is marked as the New Jerusalem because it was constructed on the vision of the real city. Historically, the first name of the town was Roha which later changed to Lalibella by the Orthodox Church. During the rule of Lalibella, it was a time in which Christianity took over as the main religion. Today, the town Lalibella is one of the most religious centers and pilgrimage destinations in northern Ethiopia.

Lalibella became the main tourist attraction due to its fascinating architectural work with its underground construction. It is mainly characterized by its eleven monolithic churches each constructed with different methods and techniques.

Surrounding the church’s living areas are settling in a circular arrangement creating church-based and showing the historical arrangement and linkage within the surrounding. The special characters of the town are one of the greatest tourist attractions for Ethiopia, as stated under UNESCO world heritage. These massive structures built are designed with a connection through tunnels and bridges.

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Lalibella is also a town of legends as well. The eleven churches were built with the help of angels is a myth. Each church is carved from a single rock and chiseled from top to bottom. It is said, the Emperor had a specific spot to pray for him and his families within the churches, having the view of the town and the church.

Origin and History of Lalibella

The history of Lalibella begins with the birth of emperor Lalibella. It is said that a swarm of bees covered him at his cradle, thus he was called Lalibella which means “the bees have recognized has recognized his greatness” in the local language. Lalibella reigned after the fall of the Zagwe dynasty in the 12th century. Roha was the name of the capital city during Zagwe.

Later on, this historical name was changed to Lalibella by the Ethiopian church. Another legend by the people of Lalibella is by the prediction that Lalibella would come to greatness he was poisoned so that the throne won’t be his.

Instead of killing him, the poison had Lalibella in a three days sleep, through which it is said an angel took his soul to heaven to show him the Jerusalem. As soon as he woke Lalibella started on the construction of the churches. As per legend, when King Lalibella had nearly finished the gathering of holy places which God had shown him, Saint George showed up and pointedly rebuked the ruler for not having built a house for him. Lalibella vowed to assemble a congregation more excellent than all the others for the holy person.

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The main character of Lalibella is its churches, built by carving volcanic rocks. The churches are said to be completed with labels quarter-century rule which is from 1185 to 1225, it is said that the day shift was all built by humans while the angels work twice the humans in the night. The architecture of the rock-hewn church is so diverse and yet keep its sequence of chronology. The churches are designed in a cluster while connected and only one isolated from others which is Bete Giorgis.

The northern group is Bete Maryam, Bete Medhane Alem, Bete Golgotha, Bete Danagel, and Bete Meskel. The western side church is Saint Giorgis. The Eastern side is Bete Amanuel, Bete Abba Libanos, Bete Qeddus, Bete Leham, and Bete Gabriel Rafael.

The Lalibella Churches – tourist attractions and UNESCO attractions

The churches of Lalibella are an imitation of Jerusalem. And they are classified into the northern, western and eastern sides, each having their design type and names based on the previous Jerusalem. The north of the river Jordan has five churches that are more interactive and connected and have their courtyard with the outer trench. On the eastern side, five churches are more defined as not symmetrical. These two groups of churches also help to define and bound the Lalibella town.

The main reasons why there were built up cave churches built by rocks are for protection against war, for an environmental factor, the need for seclusion from the outside environment, and the need to achieve permanency. The northern group of churches is also named earthly Jerusalem, the eastern side of churches are name heavenly Jerusalem and the western side is a representative of Noah’s ark. The main character that is seen in all churches located in Lalibella is the holiest part of space that will be directed to the east.

The initial function of Bete Mekoriyos and Bete Gabriel was used for defense function. The shapes of the churches are all either in rectangle or square form, with cruciform or basilica plans each carefully excavated from all the sides.

The church types can be classified based on the building technique and what they represent.

  • Built-up cave churches – by burrowing
  • Rock hewn church – not open on all side
  • Rock hewn monolithic church – from one stone

Bete Medhane Alem is the largest monolithic church that has five aisles. Decorated with carvings on the roof of crosses. Characterized by massive pillars on all four sides, 36 pillars on the inside, and another 36 on the outside. The entrance is not emphasized, has an arcade, and is about 11 meters tall. Characterized by symmetry in its design and interior space classification. Due to its similarity, Bete Medhanealem is said to portray Axum Tsion. The main structural support of the roof on the exterior is three columns located on each edge.

The rest are massive pillars which most are reconstructed after the destruction by the war. Interior space also takes the Axumite style, is said to contain a column that has all the past and the future written on it. Legend has it during the vision Lalibella had when God showed him Jerusalem Christ touched that column revealing all of the truth. The interior space division having pillars with an extended roof somewhat has a similar character to the Greek architecture.

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  1. Bete Mariam has three entrances and is emphasized. Their design uses two methods to emphasize entrance. One is using the monkey head as a framing for the door, the other one is by using the arched design on the doorway. The interior space of Bete Mariam is a normal grid shape. On the entrance, a pillar of stone stands by which is said to represent the 10 commandments of Moses.
  2. Bete Maskel also is known as the house of crosses is built on the northern side of Bete Mariam. Similar to Bete Mariam the doorway is characterized by the monkey head, the interior is also characterized by a row of four pillars that define and divide the aisle and nave.
  3. Bete Danaghel is a small space also located south of Bete Mariam, mistaken for scholar’s residence than a church. It is a small chapel that dimension around 8.6 m length and 3.6 m height.
  4. Bete Debre Sina and Bete Golgota are said to be the most mysterious out of all the others. Location for the tomb of Adam. Debre Sina is similar to Bete Mariam its interior space is divided into aisle and nave by pillars with round arches.
  5. Bete Amanuel differs from the other heavenly Jerusalem churches by its highly decorated interior and monolithic structure. Have scaled and proportional plans. The only access to Bete Amanuel is through a tunnel. Sam decorative methods and material is used throughout the exterior and interior space.
  6. Bete Mekoriyos connected to a courtyard through the eastern end. Characterized by low decoration. Had to be reconstructed due to a natural disaster it collapsed.
  7. Bete Abba Libanos this church is used by the purest saint people of the church. Semi monolithic church and accessed in all directions.
  8. Bete Gabriel characterized by disorientation, its façade is considered as monumental.
  9. Bete Giorgis Is a monolithic church, crossed shape when viewed from the top. One detail that is hidden due to perspective views is that the wall thickness at the bottom is greater than at the top and this difference is hidden by the molding on the exterior. Height is around 15 meters. The construction of Bete Giorgis is dedicated to the death of Lalibella.

The location and path of each church are planned the northern group is located across the main road from Bete Giorgis. Bete Medhanealem is linked To Bete Mariam through a small pathway than to Bete Golgotha which known to be home for the tomb of King Lalibella. The congregation of Bet Giorgis is an almost perfect cube shape, slashed looking like a cross, and is situated with the goal that the fundamental passageway is in the west and the sacred of holies in the east. The nine windows of the baseline are visually impaired; the twelve windows above are practical.

The development procedure has been lost in the fogs of time, however, 13 holy places were to be sure worked between the late twelfth and thirteenth century. These were no basic structures — the stone cut places of worship had angled windows, moldings with strict images, and paintings covering the inside dividers. Based on either side of a channel — which was named the River Jordan in acknowledgment of the new heavenly city — they associated with each other through a progression of tunnel passages.

The Town of Lalibella

The small village is still categorized as one of the towns that are still keeping the main culture going. Isolated from the modern world it’s a rural town. Christianity is their center of life. From data collected from 8-10,000 people, 1,000 of them are priests. This added to the history and culture of the town gives the small city its character.

Most villagers live by selling goods for tourists. The church is developing a cottage industry that can provide goods for both tourists and residents. ‘Main thing that needs to happen at Lalibella to protect the churches is to ensure there are trained craftspeople with the correct skills to carry out conservation, not just in short term but on an ongoing basis, this is why we invested so much time and effort in training a core group of priest mansion at Lalibella,’ Battle says.’ with correct supervision, all the churches can be conserved and afterward the shelters can be removed.’ James Jeffery/AL JAZEERA

Currently, the residents of Lalibella town are being more and more encouraged to produce crafts and create other markets, having tourists as their main buyers. The most significant salary source in the town, which is situated at a height of about 2,600 meters, is the travel industry.

The individuals who visit the town likewise go to see is the bazaar, which is overflowed by a huge number of individuals weekly. Individuals who live in the close by towns that associated with agribusiness goes to the town each Saturday to sell their items and go out on the town to shop. The townspeople, who come downhill from the mountains with their items in gatherings, make immense groups in the bazaar region of the town

Since the town is built on the Christian base, data collected shows only 200 Muslims are located in the town. There are churches or mosques for other religion therefore people with different beliefs are located on the border of the town.

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Material and Technique of Ancient Lalibella churches

The material of the site was decided by the existing nature of the site. The churches, for example, are built on massive rocks that were available nearby, technique, however, depended on the design type and the plan they wanted to achieve. The new Jerusalem inherits designs from previous civilizations from the example of the Axumite civilization and the basilica plan design.

Lalibella was a highly Christian based town resulting in the church built areas highly wanted due to the easy access to the church. This intention resulted in the circulating settlement of the residences around the church. Two types of residents in that area.  One is the tukuls characterized by two-story, made with stones, and access to the first level is through an external staircase. The second one is called Chika characterized by a single story and constructed with wattle and earth.

The church’s opening was carved in specifically shaped intentionally.

Lalibella was constantly inclined to the age of residue, which would gather normally in the outdoors cuttings and yards. Besides, cutting ever-more profound solid dividers normally expanded the way toward enduring, some of the time strengthening them to the point of collapse. There are a few cases on the site where one can watch leftovers of now-vanished stone cut structures. This is the situation in the yard of present-day Libanos, which was freed from its stores of residue after around 1970 uncovering various highlights having a place with previous buildings.

Creating courtyards next to the churches to be able to excavate another one created an accumulation of water. This circumstance would once in a while lead to unforeseen and conceivably disastrous occasions.

This can be found in the front yard of Gabriel-Rufael, where the first ground level was brought down by 9m. All things considered, the developments at Lalibella constantly modified the geomorphological and hydrological frameworks, which could both quicken the procedure of sedimentation and incite its expulsion. One can propose that these two procedures didn’t generally work simultaneously.

For the Churches, the drainage system is a critical design since they are built underground water system could affect the whole structure. The drainage system of the church was clogged for several centuries since these were not cleaned on time. This factor has affected the monuments and the structure with the risk of collapse.

Currently, providing a shelter to block rain is the only solution. This intervention was supposed to be a lightweight shelter but the negative impact has prevailed much greater. The shelter has ruined the visual, space quality, and its unique building technique. Based on some researches made it is stated that the shelter is not a promising structure that will last long.

For the wrecked churches, the material intervention has been made. For Bete Mikael and Bete Golgotha church, the new stone and mortar will blend in with the original material. This is promised by Stephen battle program director for world monument fund.

As the priests assume the reason for the destruction of some churches while others are still intact is due to the different timeline in which each church was constructed and due to the different characters of the stones.

Conserving the Deteriorating Lalibella Churches  

There is no legal framework provided to protect the rock-hewn churches except the general law, proclamation no. 209/2000, which has also established the institution in charge, the authority for research and conservation of cultural heritage (ARCCH). With the Ethiopian church as a partner, the ARCCH has a representative in Lalibella. One difficulty is the harmonization of the different projects and effective coordination between the partners

The property is administered under regional and Lasta district culture and tourism office. To prevent the property from the impact of development, a draft proclamation has been prepared but is not yet ratified. A management plan has not yet been established. A four-year conservation plan was established in 2006 but has yet to be fully implemented

Constructing Lalibella

The troglodytic phase which is characterized by dome-shaped chambers and galleries running below the rock. This phase is in the time before the site became a Christian based

Hypogean phase creating hanging chambers and chambers built based on the Aksumite style. Characterized by heightened ceilings, the connection of cubic chambers. The occupants of the site kept on involving, or reoccupied, the exhibitions of the past stage yet changed some of them into a system of cubic chambers, increasing roofs, and ornamenting passages with Aksumite-like columns and entryways.

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At that point, these entryways (today hanging over the void) associated with outside patios, recently uncovered entries more profound in the massif, and with fringe passageways or channels that were connected to the inside spaces. Related with this stage are landmarks, for example, Masqal, and Denagel, separately north and south of Maryam, and parts of others, for example, the focal office of Gabriel-Rufael

Monumental 1 stage, as is additionally the situation with a currently vanished great access to this arrangement of chapels. Incorporates the first appropriately solid landmarks uncovered. This occasionally involved extending and developing an already existing outside courtyard, as on account of Maryam. Over the span of these changes, some previous Hypogean landmarks were safeguarded in light of the fact that the augmentation of the unearthing would somehow have broken into underground spaces.

Different structures had a veneer cut and planned on the outside while being inside changed into houses of worship. The holy places of Maryam and Medhane Alem unmistakably have a place with this Monumental 1 stage, as is additionally the situation with a currently vanished great access to this arrangement of chapels. Most of the eastern side churches are assumed to be under this phase of construction.

Monumental phase 2 is by opening a new facade and deepening the trenches. It is mostly portrayed by an extensive bringing down of the outside levels. The point was clearly to make veneers, gets to and windows to recently exhumed places of worship beneath the ground level of the past ones. Accordingly, the amazing access to Maryam wound up shortened and unusable as such.

During this stage, not exclusively were new holy places likely made (Golgota-Selassie), yet in addition, other non-strict landmarks were changed into houses of worship (for example Marqorewos), the entire site turning into a Christian strict complex that lost a portion of its nonmilitary personnel or cautious highlights. Hence, it appears that the Monumental 2 stage is set apart by an ideological split from the past stage.


Lalibella is the main source location for many study areas, for tourism attraction, for religious activities. Maintaining its structural strength should always be the number one priority in heritage preservation. If the right authority takes over the supervision of the sites through time the shelter that’s worsening the current problem can be removed. The church is a critical function in people’s life religion-wise or market-wise all the activities are interrelated and dependent on each other.

Lalibella through time has changed. Some of the churches that were built for the royalties are now changed into a church and holy spaces dedicated to priests. A church belonging to certain priests. The link between the Lalibella church and Jerusalem is thought to be the Solomonic dynasty and fall of Jerusalem.

Despite being the main area for tourist attraction, Lalibella still remains to be the same by keeping the culture.