Lalibela is a place of legends and myth. Few facts are clear-cut except that it was originally called Roha and it was the capital of the Zagwe dynasty, which ruled Ethiopia from the 10th to the mid-13th century.
Its modern name derives from the famous 12th-century King Lalibela. According to legend, the King dreamed that he went to heaven with an angel and was shown a city of rock-hewn churches, which he was ordered to replicate. Another version of the legend says Lalibela went into exile in Jerusalem, and was inspired to create a ‘new’ Jerusalem at Roha.
The elaborately-carved churches of Lalibela are all subterranean, connected by tunnels, ringed by rock-hewn trenches and courtyards.
Within the north-west group, the massive Bet Medhane Alem (Redeemer of the World) seems reminiscent of an ancient Greek temple. In fact, it’s the largest monolithic rock-hewn church in the world, measuring 11.5m high and covering an area of almost 800m². Niches in the courtyard walls were once graves or hermits’ caves.
A short tunnel leads to a second courtyard enclosing three more churches. The largest is Bet Maryam (House of Mary). It is thought to have been the first church built in Lalibela.” Because of its association with the Virgin, Bet Maryam remains the most popular church in the complex among Ethiopians.”
Carved into the northern wall of Bet Maryam’s courtyard, is the tiny chapel of Bet Meskel. And in the southern wall, the smaller chapel of Bet Danaghel (House of the Virgin Martyrs).
It an elaborately carved interior and paintings on parts of the ceiling. “Within this church, one veiled pillar is reputedly inscribed with the Ten Commandments in Greek and Ge’ez, as well as the story of how the churches of Lalibela were excavated, and the story of the beginning and end of the world. Priests say that this pillar glowed brightly until the 16th century, but they claim it would be too dangerous to lift the veil and show it …” [ Bradt – Travel Guide to Ethiopia ]
The third courtyard in the northwest cluster contains the twin churches of Bet Debre Sina (House of Mount Sinai; also called Bet Mikael – House of Michael) and Bet Golgotha. These churches share an entrance. Bet Golgotha is the one church in Lalibela that women are prohibited from entering: inside are seven life-size reliefs of saints carved around its walls.
There is also a legend that King Lalibela is buried beneath a slab on the floor of this church, and that the soil of this supposed grave has healing powers. The Selassie Chapel, which lies within Bet Golgotha, is considered the holiest place in Lalibela But few visitors have ever been permitted to enter it.
The western exit from the courtyard lies at the base of the Tomb of Adam, a cruciform hermit’s cell.