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.

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Interior of Bet Medhane Alem

The elaborately-carved churches of Lalibela are all subterranean, connected by tunnels, ringed by rock-hewn trenches and courtyards.

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Bet Medhane Alem exterior (note stone pillars from last century replaced hewn ones that were missing/broken).

Inside the massive Bet Medhane Alem

Inside the massive Bet Medhane Alem

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.

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Bet Medhane Alem

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.”

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Bet Maryam’s courtyard during Sunday morning mass …

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LEFT: Ornate windows on Bet Maryam. RIGHT: tiny chapel of Bet Meskel in southern wall; interior of Bet Maryam – with sacred, covered pillar

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).

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Sunday mass worshippers in Bet Maryam courtyard

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 ]

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RIGHT: carved saint statue in Bet Golgotha. RIGHT: ceiling paintings in Bet Maryam.

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.

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Trench and entrance at the churches of Bet Debre Sina + Bet Golgotha.

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.

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Priests with bibles – Sunday mass

The western exit from the courtyard lies at the base of the Tomb of Adam, a cruciform hermit’s cell.

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RIGHT: Looking to Bet Golgotha + Tomb of Adam at western entrance. RIGHT: Priests at Sunday mass in Bet Maryam; Looking up to Bet Maryam (Many of the churches now have these ugly Euro-funded rain protection shelters, that were not there in 1994 on my last visit).

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Map of north western Lalibela group. [ INFO SOURCE + MAP: Bradt Travel guide to Ethiopia ]

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