This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2016.—Ed.
While many spectacular churches have been constructed in Ethiopia, perhaps the country’s most famous churches are the ones carved out of stone. Located 150 miles south of Aksum, Lalibela is the best example of Ethiopia’s hypogean (rock-hewn) architectural tradition. With 11 rock-hewn churches, Lalibela is understandably a place of pilgrimage for those in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The site Lalibela was originally called Roha, but it eventually took the name of King Lalibela, who ruled around 1200 C.E. as part of the Zagwe dynasty. King Lalibela is traditionally attributed as the builder of all the churches at the site.
Lalibela’s 11 churches are carved out of a hillside, which is made of soft reddish volcanic rock. The churches can be divided into two complexes—a northern and a southeastern complex—that are connected through a series of carved passageways and naturally occurring wadis. Six churches are featured in the northern complex and four in the southeastern complex. The 11th church—Beta Giyorgis (Church of St. George)—stands alone and is not part of either interconnecting complex.
In the free ebook Who Was Jesus? Exploring the History of Jesus’ Life, examine fundamental questions about Jesus of Nazareth. Where was he really born—Bethlehem or Nazareth? Did he marry? Is there evidence outside of the Bible that proves he actually walked the earth?
The northern complex is composed of:
(1) Beta Madhane Alem (Church of the Savior of the World)
(2) Beta Maryam (Church of Mary)
(3) Beta Masqal (Church of the Cross)
(4) Beta Danagel (Church of the Virgins)
(5) Beta Mika’el (Church of Michael)
(6) Beta Golgotha (Church of Golgotha)
The southeastern complex consists of:
(7) Beta Emmanuel (Church of Emmanuel)
(8) Beta Abba Libanos (Church of Father Libanos)
(9) Beta Merkurios (Church of Mercurius)
(10) Beta Gabriel and Beta Rafa’el (the twin churches of Gabriel and Raphael)
Located west of the other complexes, the final—and most famous—rock-hewn church of Lalibela is (11) Beta Giyorgis (Church of St. George), which is featured in the article “Where Is the Land of Sheba—Arabia or Africa?” by Bar Kribus in the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Shaped like a cross, Beta Giyorgis sits on a stepped platform inside a 72-by-72-foot courtyard that is 36 feet deep. Originally, it was accessible only from the west by means of a long approach—measuring nearly 100 feet—that led uphill and connected the church to the wadi below. Standing at the same level as the church, it is not immediately apparent that Beta Giyorgis is shaped like a cross, but from above, it becomes clear that not only is it shaped like a cross, but that Greek crosses have been carved into its roof as well. Beta Giyorgis has three doors and twelve windows.
Each of the windows is adorned by a cross and floral motif carved in relief above its opening. An additional nine false windows are carved into the exterior of the church at the same level as the doors, but they do not open into the church’s interior. Of all the churches at Lalibela, Beta Giyorgis is the best preserved. Dated to the late 12th or early 13th century, it is also one of the latest churches at the site. The other churches are estimated to have been built over a span of several centuries—from the 10th through the 13th centuries or later.
Explore Lalibela’s spectacular subterranean churches in this web-exclusive slideshow:
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on August 25, 2016.