What is the history of Lalibela? and unpopular stories

Visiting Lalibela is like visiting a place that you have not imagined before. The town, that is very small and even has no sophisticated city building and roads, seems daunting and limiting the imagination of what such a town could hold inside. The small tukuls and the hight elevation above sea level all limited the vehicular and road connection to the surrounding towns, probably contributed to the history of Lalibela.

In fact, this highland would not have much name if it was not for the religious artifacts it preserves for ages. Only this great mystery and myth opened the gate for the religious. Especially the Christian religious events bring up to 50,000 pilgrimages. The town only depends on tourism for day to day income.

Lalibela only has 200 Muslims and it still kept what has been years before, which was to make the second Jerusalem in Ethiopia. You sea level witness this with how dedicated the follower of the religion are, as they storm to the buildings early in the morning and pray to hold the pillars and facing the walls. You would see people in white changing and praying silently everywhere in the churches.

The depressed under the surface building and the cave extension buildings and free-standing buildings, all hold their own story for why these were built in the first place. The unique decorations and articulations depict the story behind them truly prove that probably the angels helped the masons in the construction process.

The history of Lalibela has not been sophisticatedly written, Even the rest of the world knew the existence of such a place 300 years after the construction of the churches. Some of the stories resemble myths that kings would write for In fact. ‘Angel appeared to them’, ‘Christ decided and ordered them’ and such depictions seem to have a place in hearts of the dedicated followers. The rest of us would prefer to observe and learn and admire the magnificence of the medieval architecture and thinking and how it contributed to the civilizations. We also learn the history of Lalibela and how it came about.

History of Lalibela: Beginning

The beginning of Lalibela dates back to the 12th century. The town is said to begin by a king called Lalibela that lived from 1181-1221. History of the city of Lalibela began with a legend of King Lalibela when he was a small child. While he laid in his bed, surrounded with a swarm of bees, his mother, surprised, called his name ‘Lalibela’ that translates in Agew language as ‘even bees see his power, to be a ruler’

Harabay, Lalibela’s older brother, jealous of the news, tried to murder Lalibela, even poisoned him that put Lalibela in three days coma. Later, legend says, Lalibela’s soul was taken to heavens and he was told to return to Roha, present-day so Lalibela, and build churches. He was crowned soon after he woke up from the coma and he continued to build the city.

He traveled to visit the city of Jerusalem where he witnessed the city under the power of Muslims in 1187. He returned to Lalibela to make the churches and the town with biblical names and references. He ruled for 40 years in the late 12th century.

History of Lalibela: King St. Gebre

Later King St. Gebre envisioned to build new Jerusalem following the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem. He even commissioned the construction of monolithic churches. Angels worked with the masons until the completion of the churches. People say that that ‘non-humans’ probably built them because of extremely hard workmanship of carving a building out of a single rock.

The buildings are shaped like a cross or other religious symbols. The windows, carvings, decorations, all depict such religious ciphers. The crosses used on the churches are two types, the Greek cross, and the Latin cross. The Greek cross has equal arms while the Latin one side is longer than the rest of the sides.

The Ethiopian Croix pattee, that is a Greek cross with flaring rays. Many crosses were made at the time. Lalibela crosses have bird head at the sides and have a crown of human silhouette depicting being as doves and the twelve apostles.  The third cross, swastika crosses that were highly used in the middle ages.

Lalibela was the capital of Ethiopian until the 13th century.

History of Lalibela: Visitors

The first European, missionary Francisco Alvarez, who visited the town between 1521- 1525 described the town as second Jerusalem. He was fascinated with the architecture of Lalibela churches and tried to show what he saw to where he came from.


He wrote’…it wearied me to write more these works because it seemed that they will not believe me if I write more and because as to what I have already written they will accuse me of untruth…’ He even swore that he was telling the truth saying that ‘…I swear my God under whose power I am that all that is written is the truth..’ He continued saying that there is much more than he had written and left it out since he thought that he would not be believed.  (Source: Alvarez 1961)

More ideas could be found about his pilgrimage and writing on ‘Notes on an Unpublished Manuscript of Francisco Alvares: Verdadera informaçam das terras do Preste Joam das Indias’

It was later the name Roha changed to Lalibela and the worldly life was changed to a holy town. 

History of Lalibela: Today

Today the town is one of the holiest places in the country and it inhabits churches, monasteries, and other religious celebrations. UNESCO registered the place in 1978 as world heritage sites, and some even consider them to be on the list of the top 10 wonders of the world. Today Lalibela could seem an everyday town in Ethiopia if it was not for the churches and religious associations. The town today is considered a holy place, next to Axum, and many people gather to celebrate and pray on many days of every year. It is also a destination for a number of tourists that flock to see the amazing architectural outputs of the 12th century.

Lalibela has 11 rock-cut churches and is studied grouped in three: the eastern group, the northern group, and the western group.

The Eastern Group includes various churches with own unique styles including Bete Amanuel or ‘House of Immanuel’; Bete Gabriel-Rafael or ‘House of the angels Gabriel, and Raphael’; Bete Qeddus Mercoreus or ‘House of Saint Mercurius’; Bete Lehem or ‘Bethlehem’; Bete Abba Libanos ‘House of Abbot Libanos’.

The Northern side of river Jordan churches include Bete Maryam or ‘House of Mary’; Bete Meskel or ‘House of the Cross’; Bete Denagel or ‘House of Virgins’; Bete Medhane Alem or ‘House of the Saviour of the World’ and Bete Golgotha Mikael or ‘House of Golgotha Mikael’. Church of Saint George is located away from the rest on the west side of the churches.

Lalibela has more than 50,000 residents and doubles the number of pilgrims visit the town on charismas or new year. The town still kept its vernacular architecture that is houses made of stones and Chika that is the ground. The weekly market, the monasteries, the churches around the town still function and are attraction places for visitors. The grandiose landscape that is much higher than many towns in the country is a scenery that many crave for. Some hotels are designed to portray such landscapes and are glass wall and open to the landscapes.

Due to the altitude, vehicles are sometimes discouraging. Some tourists still prefer to say in the town for a few days before leaving it behind. With such decisions, they needed to grasp the current story of the city. They could see in detail the creation of the town, could meet the people, could go on hiking or could go on a spiritual journey.

Today the town of Lalibela seems not moved much. But the history that it contains is still a great attraction point. The town has become a long way since the time of Lalibela and his calling to become a king in the presence of his elders. The town has turned silent and loud in its own way. It still persists to have amazed visitors with its structures.

Tomorrow surely, the town could develop and turn in to the bigger city, still preserving the key to the image of the city. It would grow to accommodate more competitive use and yet, it stays as a holy land of the country.

No matter how many pictures you have seen, you will not have a clue about how the town looks like if you have not experienced it first hand. History of Lalibela would be preserved in such acts of tourism that promotes the value of such structures. Although the structures are losing their beauty due to climatic conditions, erosion and constant use by the religious followers, the beauty still persists.

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