Lalibela is a village in the mountainous Welo region of northern Ethiopia, about 440 miles (700 kilometers) north of Addis Ababa; in the Middle Ages it was known as Roha and was the capital of the Zagwe dynasty. Standing on a rock terrace at an elevation of 8,500 feet (2,600 meters), it is the site of eleven large rock-hewn monastic churches that date from the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Each is architecturally distinctive and all are finely carved inside and out. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, they are not the earliest such churches in Ethiopia (others predate them by at least 500 years), but they are widely recognized as the most beautiful. Francisco Alvarez, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary, visited Lalibela in the 1520s, the first European to see the churches. He was reluctant to report to his superiors, fearing that they would not believe his account of buildings “unlike any to be seen elsewhere in the world.” Nevertheless, he described them. “hewn entirely out of the living rock, which is sculpted with great ingenuity.” The culturally unique churches are remarkable for that reason: each has been cut from the purple-red volcanic tufa, in some cases 90 feet (27 meters) into the ground. Some of them are connected by tunnels or passageways open to the sky. Even to the modern mind, they are an architectural marvel.
The history of the churches is swathed in mythology. It is probable that King Lalibela (1181–1221) commissioned them. According to legend, angels carried him to heaven when he was affected by a poison that his envious brother had administered; God sent him back to earth with instructions to build the churches and later dispatched angels to continue the work at night. Another account says that the king recruited Indian, Arab, and Egyptian builders, or even “white men” from Jerusalem, a link that is strengthened by the naming of the local river, Jordan. It has been suggested that, upon learning that the Holy City had fallen to Islam, Lalibela wanted to create a “new Jerusalem” in his secure mountain fastness. Tradition has it that the eleven buildings were completed in twenty-four years—archeologists calculate that would have needed 40,000 workers—but the time frame seems too short. Maskal Kabra, Lalibela’s queen, is said to have built one of them to his memory.
The churches stand in two groups flanking the Jordan. Four of them—Bet Medhane Alem, Bet Maryam, Bet Amanuel, and the cruciform Bet Ghiorghis, dedicated to Ethiopia’s patron saint—are in effect huge blocks of sculptured stone standing in deep excavated courtyards and attached to the rock only by their bases. Bet signifies “the house of.” They look like normal buildings, but each one is a single piece. The others must be accurately described as semimonolithic, because they remain attached to the rock by at least one face, whether the roof or walls. For example, although the twin churches of Bet Golgotha and Bet Qedus Mikael share a roof, they have, respectively, one and three facades exposed. Bet Abba Libanos is isolated from the mother rock except for its roof, which is integrated with the overhanging cliff; in front of it stands a large forecourt, cut from the tufa. The other churches are named Bet Danaghel, Bet Debre Sinai, Bet Gabriel-Rufa’el, Bet Merkorios, and Bet Meskel.
The eclectically blended artistic influences are varied—Greek, Egyptian, and even Islamic—and the nature and the extent of the carefully carved exterior and interior walls, ceilings, moldings, and window tracery are just as diverse. Bet Qedus Mikael has smooth exterior wall surfaces, and its interior is austere, decorated with Greek crosses; on the other hand, Bet Golgotha is more ornate, perhaps because it houses the tomb of King Lalibela, and it contains bas-reliefs of saints, the only sculptures in any Ethiopian church. Other churches have painted decoration, mostly with a teaching function, in various states of preservation.
The churches of Lalibela are home to hundreds of monks, clerics, and students, who celebrate liturgies that are the same as they were eight centuries ago. It is the most important pilgrimage site in Ethiopia, a country that includes an island of Christianity in a sea of Islam, and during the major holiday seasons it may be visited by as many as 50,000 devotees. More recently, Lalibela has become a tourist attraction, precisely because of its spectacular churches, and draws over 10,000 secular visitors a year. Inevitably, there is a tension between conservation and development. But because tourism is the village’s only real source of wealth and is encouraged by the central government, a compromise must be reached. In 1996 the European Community earmarked EUR4.7 million for shelters to replace the corrugated-steel roofs that covered Bet Medhane Alem, Bet Maryam, Bet Meskel, Bet Amanuel, and Bet Abba Libanos from damage caused by torrential rains, and an international architectural competition was held. Structures designed by the first-prize winners, Teprin Associati of Italy, were completed by December 2000. UNESCO and the Ethiopian Department of Preservation of Cultural Heritage are urging restoration of the deteriorating fabric of the churches.