Lalibela is a town in northern Ethiopia that is famous for its 11 monolithic rock-cut churches. Lalibela is one of Ethiopia's holiest cities, second only to Aksum, and is a center of pilgrimage for much of the country. Unlike Aksum, the population of Lalibela is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. The layout and names of the major buildings in Lalibela are widely accepted, especially by the local clergy, to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem. This has led some experts to date the current form of its churches to the years following the capture of Jerusalem in 1187 by the Muslim soldier Saladin.
Lalibela is located in the Semien Wollo Zone of the Amhara ethnic division (or kilil) at roughly 2,500 meters above sea level. It is the main town in Lasta woreda, which was formerly part of Bugna woreda.
During the reign of Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (a member of the Zagwe Dynasty, who ruled Ethiopia in the late 12th century and early 13th century) the current town of Lalibela was known as Roha. The saintly king was given this name due to a swarm of bees said to have surrounded him at his birth, which his mother took as a sign of his future reign as Emperor of Ethiopia. The names of several places in the modern town and the general layout of the rock-cut churches themselves are said to mimic names and patterns observed by Lalibela during the time he spent in Jerusalem and the Holy Land as a youth.
Lalibela is said to have seen Jerusalem and then attempted to build a new Jerusalem as his capital in response to the capture of old Jerusalem by Muslims in 1187. As such, many features have Biblical names – even the town's river is known as the River Jordan. It remained the capital of Ethiopia from the late 12th century and into the 13th century
The first European to see these churches was the Portuguese explorer Pêro da Covilhã (1460–1526). Portuguese priest Francisco Álvares (1465–1540), who accompanied the Portuguese Ambassador on his visit to Lebna Dengel in the 1520s. His description of these structures concludes:
Although Ramuso included plans of several of these churches in his 1550 printing of Álvares' book, it is not known who supplied him the drawings. The next reported European visitor to Lalibela was Miguel de Castanhoso, who served as a soldier under Christovão da Gama and left Ethiopia in 1544. After de Castanhoso, over 300 years passed until the next European, Gerhard Rohlfs, visited Lalibela at some time between 1865 and 1870.
According to the Futuh al-Habasa of Sihab ad-Din Ahmad, Ahmad Gragn burned one of the churches of Lalibela during his invasion of Ethiopia. However, Richard Pankhurst has expressed his skepticism about this event, pointing out that although Sihab ad-Din Ahmad provides a detailed description of a rock-hewn church ("It was carved out of the mountain. Its pillars were likewise cut from the mountain."), only one church is mentioned; Pankhurst adds that "what is special about Lalibela (as every tourist knows) is that it is the site of eleven or so rock churches, not just one – and they are all within more or less a stone's throw of each other!" Pankhurst also notes that the Royal Chronicles, which mention Ahmad Gragn's laying waste to the district between July and September 1531, are silent about the Imam ravaging the fabled churches of this city. He concludes with stating that had Ahmad Gragn burned a church at Lalibela, it was most likely Bete Medhane Alem; and if the Muslim army was either mistaken or misled by the locals, then the church he set fire to was Gannata Maryam, "10 miles east of Lalibela which likewise has a colonnade of pillars cut from the mountain".
This rural town is known around the world for its churches carved from the living rock, which play an important part in the history of rock-cut architecture. Though the dating of the churches is not well established, most are thought to have been built during the reign of Lalibela, namely during the 12th and 13th centuries. Unesco identifies 11 churches,assembled in four groups:
The Northern Group:
Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), home to the Lalibela Cross and believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, probably a copy of St Mary of Zion in Aksum.
Biete Maryam (House of Miriam/House of Mary), possibly the oldest of the churches, and a replicas of the Tombs of Adam and Christ.
Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael), known for its arts and said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela)
Biete Maskal (House of the Cross)
Biete Denagel (House of Virgins)
The Western Group:
Biete Giyorgis (Church of Saint George), said to be the most finely executed and best preserved church.
The Eastern Group:
Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), possibly the former royal chapel
Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercoreos/House of St. Mark), which may be a former prison
Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos)
Biete Gabriel-Rufael (House of the angels Gabriel, and Raphael)possibly a former royal palace, linked to a holy bakery.
Biete Lehem (Bethlehem Hebrew: בֵּית לֶחֶם, House of Holy Bread). Farther afield lie the monastery of Ashetan Maryam and Yimrehane Kristos church (possibly eleventh century, built in the Aksumite fashion but within a cave).
There is some controversy as to when some of the churches were constructed. David Buxton established the generally accepted chronology, noting that "two of them follow, with great fidelity of detail, the tradition represented by Debra Damo as modified at Yemrahana Kristos." Since the time spent to carve these structures from the living rock must have taken longer than the few decades of King Lalibela's reign, Buxton assumes that the work extended into the 14th century. However, David Phillipson, professor of African archeology at Cambridge University, has proposed that the churches of Merkorios, Gabriel-Rufael, and Danagel were initially carved out of the rock half a millennium earlier, as fortifications or other palace structures in the waning days of the Axumite Kingdom, and that Lalibela's name simply came to be associated with them after his death. On the other hand, local historian Getachew Mekonnen credits Masqal Kibra, Lalibela's queen, with having one of the rock-hewn churches (Abba Libanos) built as a memorial for her husband after his death.
Contrary to theories advocated by writers like Graham Hancock, according to Buxton the great rock-hewn churches of Lalibela were not built with the help of the Knights Templar; asserting abundant evidence exists to show that they were produced solely by medieval Ethiopian civilization. For example, while Buxton notes the existence of a tradition that "Abyssinians invoked the aid of foreigners" to construct these monolithic churches, and admits that "there are clearly signs of Coptic influence in some decorative details" (hardly surprising given the theological, ecclesiastical, and cultural links between the Ethiopian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox Churches), he is adamant about the native origins of these creations: "But the significant fact is remains that the rock-churches continue to follow the style of the local built-up prototypes, which themselves retain clear evidence of their basically Axumite origin."
The churches are also a significant engineering feat, given that they are all associated with water (which fills the wells next to many of the churches) exploiting an artesian geological system that brings the water up to the top of the mountain ridge on which the city rests.