From the World Heritage inscription:
In a mountainous region in the heart of Ethiopia, some 645 km from Addis Ababa, eleven medieval monolithic churches were carved out of rock. Their building is attributed to King Lalibela who set out to construct in the 12th century a ‘New Jerusalem’, after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the holy Land. Lalibela flourished after the decline of the Aksum Empire.
There are two main groups of churches – to the north of the river Jordan: Biete Medhani Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), Biete Mariam (House of Mary), Biete Maskal (House of the Cross), Biete Denagel (House of Virgins), Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael); and to the south of the river, Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercoreos), Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos), Biete Gabriel Raphael (House of Gabriel Raphael), and Biete Lehem (House of Holy Bread). The eleventh church, Biete Ghiorgis (House of St. George), is isolated from the others, but connected by a system of trenches.
The churches were not constructed in a traditional way but rather were hewn from the living rock of monolithic blocks. These blocks were further chiselled out, forming doors, windows, columns, various floors, roofs etc. This gigantic work was further completed with an extensive system of drainage ditches, trenches and ceremonial passages, some with openings to hermit caves and catacombs.
Biete Medhani Alem, with its five aisles, is believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, while Biete Ghiorgis has a remarkable cruciform plan. Most were probably used as churches from the outset, but Biete Mercoreos and Biete Gabriel Rafael may formerly have been royal residences. Several of the interiors are decorated with mural paintings.
Near the churches, the village of Lalibela has two storey round houses, constructed of local red stone, and known as the Lasta Tukuls. These exceptional churches have been the focus of pilgrimage for Coptic Christians since the 12th century.
The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are one of the most significant world heritage sites on Earth, but probably the most famous attraction in Ethiopia.
In 1978, they were one of the 12 original sites to be inscribed on the World Heritage List. The others in that inaugural class were:
- City of Quito – Ecuador
- Galapagos Islands – Ecuador
- Mesa Verde National Park – USA
- Yellowstone National Park – USA
- Nahanni National Park – Canada
- L’Anse aux Meadows – Canada
- Wieliczka Salt Mine – Poland
- Cracow’s Historic Centre – Poland
- Aachen Cathedral – Germany
- Simien National Park – Ethiopia
With this visit I have now been to 11 of the first 12 World Heritage Sites.
Despite the fact that 11 churches are listed, there are really just three clusters of churches. Many of the churches are just caves dug into the side of one of the main pits, so the door of one church is just a few meters from the door of the next church.
The most popular church, and the one shown in the photo, is St. George’s which was the last of the churches built. All of the lessons and techniques learned on the other churches were put in place on St. George’s Church.
It is easy to walk between all the churches and you can easily visit all 11 in a single day. All of the churches are very small and can only accommodate a small number of people at one time.
The trick is getting to Lalibela which is a small community in the mountains. There is an airport which services the town and has flights daily from Addis Ababa. I’d recommend hiring a local guide for the day, else you will not have any context to what you are seeing.