The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela

Ethiopian rock churches

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2016.—Ed.


 
Beta Giyorgis (Church of St. George). Photo: “Bete Giyorgis 03” by Bernard Gagnon is licensed under CC-by-SA-3.0.

Beta Giyorgis (Church of St. George). Photo: “Bete Giyorgis 03” by Bernard Gagnon is licensed under CC-by-SA-3.0.

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.
 


 
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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)

Lalibela plan-1

Plan of the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia. On the plan, the area marked 1 is the northern complex of churches; 2 marks the southeastern complex of churches; and 3 marks Beta Giyorgis. Photo: From David W. Phillipson, Ancient Churches of Ethiopia: Fourth–Fourteenth Centuries (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 2009), fig. 188.

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.

11-2.-Beta-Giyorgis

Beta Giyorgis (Church of St. George), view from above. Photo: “Lalibela Église Bet Giyorgis” by Julien Demade is licensed under CC-by-SA-3.0.

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.
 

 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Who Is the Queen of Sheba in the Bible?

Expedition Claims Evidence of Queen of Sheba Found in Ethiopia

Pilgrims’ Progress to Byzantine Jerusalem

To Jerusalem: Pilgrimage Road Identified?
 


 

Posted in Image Galleries, The Ancient Near Eastern World.

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  • M says

    Who was King Lalibela? Why were these churches constructed? How long has monotheism (Judaism & Christianity) been practiced in Ethiopia? How does Ethiopian Christianity differ from Western practice?

    This article fails to answer many basic questions. But in all fairness, Ethiopia’s rich religious history deserves an encyclopedia of its own.

  • brisa says

    great

  • William says

    In your reference to the book “Who was Jesus?” why would you be so ill informed about the historical and human/divine Jesus? See the following for starters:
    •writings by and about Jesus viz. P. Pilate
    •Canonical Old and New Testaments
    • resources from the Roman Catholic Church
    •Josephus, Romano-Jewish historian
    •Tacitus, Roman historian
    •Pliny, the Younger
    •et al

    Check it out.
    It may determine a place in Eternity.


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