The Untold Story of The Ethiopian King Who Built The Remarkable Rock-Hewn Churches in Lalibela
Located in central Lalibela, a northern town in Ethiopia formerly known as Roha, there are 11 incredible medieval churches that were carved from one large piece of volcanic rock more than 900 years ago. The awe-inspiring buildings have attracted thousands of tourists from all over the world in recent years.
Followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church liken the monuments to Bernadette’s sacred cave in Lourdes, France. Thousands of pilgrims flock to the site every year to pay homage to the holy ground and to the King who allegedly built the magnificent structures.
The churches are located underground and intricately designed with connecting tunnels and passageways. In 1978 the churches were given UNESCO World Heritage Status.
Historians believe that these particular structures were built in four to five phases by King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela in the 12th Century (r ca. 1181–1221). According to the king’s hagiography, King Gebra constructed the churches over 24 years, with angelic assistance.
Built into a rocky massif situated about 2600 meters above sea level beneath Mount Abuna Yosef, there are two groups of churches, and one singular church separated by the river Yordannos(Jordan)
There are five churches to the north of the river known as, Biete Golgotha Mikael, Biete Mariam, Biete Denagel, Biete Maskal and Biete Medhani Alem. To the south, there are an additional five churches known as, Biete Lahem, Biete Gabriel Rafael, Biete Abba Libanos, Biete Amanuel and Biete Qeddus Mercoreus. One other church known as Biete Ghiorgis is situated west of the southern group.
According to historical accounts, King Lalibela was a highly respected figure. Historical reports state that he was born with a swarm of bees surrounding him which at the time signified wealth and abundance. He grew up to become the king of Zagwe and reigned for more than 40 years.
According to Belay Habetamu, the pope of one of the rock-hewn churches, Jesus spoke to King Lalibela commanding him to build churches by carving rocks…The construction of the elaborate group of churches was inspired by Noah’s arc and was built underground to protect the structures from enemies.
Lalibela was declared a saint by the Orthodox Church after his death. His tomb remains in Biet Golgotha, one of the 11 churches.