“The eighth wonder of the world”, Lalibela is the “New Jerusalem” built by King Lalibela “with the help of Angels” in the 12th Century, in an almost inaccessible mountain stronghold at a height of 2340m above sea level.
Lalibela, formerly called Roha, now carries the name of the 11th Century King Lalibela of the Zagwe Dynasty. Legend tells of rivalry between the young Prince Lalibela and his elder brother, King Harbay, following their mother’s revelation that Lalibela would be King. Harbay attempted to murder Lalibela with a poison which put Lalibela to sleep. During this sleep, Lalibela was taken to Heaven by angels, where God ordered him to build churches in Roha. Awakening from his sleep, and forgiving his brother, the two travelled to Roha, where Harbay abdicated to make way for Lalibela. On his coronation, Lalibela set about building the churches, the work being completed quickly because angels were said to continue the work at night.
The churches are carved from the rock they stand in, and many are comprised of labyrinthine tunnels and crypts connecting galleries and grottos. The largest church is Bet Medhane Alem, built almost like a Greek temple, surrounded by square columns, and a further set of columns supporting the roof inside. In one corner are three symbolic graves, dug for biblical patriachs Abraham, Issac and Jacob.
The two churches of Bet Golgotha and Bet Mika’el are complexly interlinked, and house the Selassie Chapel, and perhaps even the tomb of Lalibela himself. The churches also house some of the most beautiful processional crosses in Lalibela, one of the most elaborate and oldest of which is reputed to have belonged to King Lalibela himself.
The elegant, Greek cross-shaped church of Bet Giyorgis is located in a deep pit with perpendicular walls, accessible only by a tunnel located a small distance away. This church was built by Lalibela for Saint George, who is said to have supervised its construction himself, and the monks will still show you the hoof marks left by his horse.