የኢትዮጵያ ታሪክ፥ ላሊበላ
The above phrase is written in Amharic, and says “Ethiopian history: Lalibela.”
In 1978, the churches of Lalibela were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The churches in the town are still an active place of pilgrimage and worship for the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox faith. To preserve these historic Lalibela churches, UNESCO has built protective covering for four of the churches so that they can be sheltered from the weather. If you’d like to see a brief video of Lalibela made by UNESCO, click here.
First Group: Northern Churches
1. Bete Medhane Alem – Savior/Redeemer of the World
This church is home to the Cross of Lalibela and stands 11 meters high. Biete Medhanie is the largest of the Lalibela churches and is considered to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world. It is a monolith – carved from one large block of stone. The walls are a deep pink in color, which make the church stand out from the rugged landscape. Within the church are 72 columns, symbolizing the 72 disciples. It’s said that Christ touched one of the pillars of the church when he appeared to King Lalibela in one of his dreams.
2. Bete Maryam (Church of Mary)
There are stunning frescoes and paintings inside this church, which pays tribute to the Virgin Mary.
3. Bete Meskel (House of the Cross)
4. Bete Denagel – House of Virgins
Another small chapel found in Bet Maryam’s courtyard (carved into the southern wall), this small church was constructed in memory of the maiden nuns martyred upon the order of 4th century Roman emperor Julian.
5. Golgotha (King Lalibela’s Tomb)/Debre Sinay/St. Michael’s
These three churches are in close proximity to one another, connected by narrow paths and tricky-to-navigate entrances.
Although I could access the anteroom of the church of Golgotha, only men were allowed into the church itself. Don’t even get me started. King Lalibela’s tomb is also not available to the public. He is regarded as a saint as well as a monarch.
6. Tomb of Adam and Eve
In between the northern and southern groups of churches, one finds a village of bee huts. When King Lalibela was a boy, it is believed that he was chosen as king by this heavenly sign: a swarm of bees surrounded him. Traditional bee huts were built in memory of this, but many are no longer occupied.
Second Group: Southern Churches
1. Bete Gebrel and Rufael (Church of Gabriel and Raphael)
Below is a fascinating video of worshipers chanting during a prayer service.
2. Bete Merkoryos
This church is reached by a series of paths and tunnels from Bete Gebrel and Rufael. It is very small and it is theorized that it may have originally had a different purpose other than worship. The discovery of ankle shackles have caused speculation that it may have been used as a prison at some point.
3. Bete Amanuel
4. Bete Abba Libanos
Bete Giyorgis (St. George Church)
This spectacular church is located between the two groups. It boggles the mind to consider how this structure was created without machinery of any kind, in the late 12th or early 13th century AD. It was carved from the top down, and is made of volcanic tuff.
At first glance, it seems impossible to find the entrance to the church due to the sheer walls all around it. However, one can enter via a narrow man-made canyon/tunnel, which spirals downward and conceals the entrance in order to protect the church.
Third Group: Outside Town
St. Yemrehana Krestos Church
St. Na’akueto La’ab Cave Church
Asheten Mariam Monastery
We were winded but triumphant when we reached the top!