Inspiring creative writing through travel and photography


When you disembark from the aircraft at the small airport up north of Ethiopia, the pilot will give you the most welcoming message, which is spoken with great pride. He will finish off the message with “Enjoy Lali! Indeed it is a message that marks the beginning of a journey into a rich history, culture and religion that spans many centuries.

Lalibela, which is located in the Amhara region, is a mountainous town which is about 700 kilometers away from the capital city Addis Ababa; you can either drive there or take a two hour flight to visit the famous Rock Hewn Churches that were constructed in 1100 AD by the Priest King Lalibela.

Upon arrival, the town looks isolated, dismal and extremely quiet. The high mountains give the impression that there is no life beyond, but they are only the beginning of a beautiful scenic view of the rural town, as you will see on the twenty-five minute drive from the airport.  Lalibela was named after the Priest King who ruled around the 12th century. King Roha as he was formerly called was named Lalibela, ‘Honey eater’, by his mother who one day observed that a swarm of bees had surrounded him but did not harm him. She took it as a sign that he would be a future king anointed by God. As a youth King Lalibela visited Jerusalem, the influence of what he observed in the Holy City is what led him to single handedly hewn the churches. Legend has it that the King was assisted by angels, who while the king using simple stone hammer and chisel, curved the churches, the angels helped to move the large broken pieces out. Well whatever mystery surrounds the construction, the churches are remarkable replicas of Biblical times, places and people. The interior art and décor speaks volumes of the memories that a King had of Jerusalem. The timing of the churches is said to be around 1100AD after Jerusalem was captured. There are three clusters of churches, three symbolising the Holy Trinity; the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He had hewn eleven churches, symbolic of twelve Apostles but one, Judas Ischariot, who betrayed the Lord Jesus Christ.

The first cluster, the northern group has five churches, each linked to the other with passage ways and underground tunnels. Biete Medhane Alem or House of the Saviour is known to be the home of the Lalibela Cross. Next to it is St. Maryam or the House of Mary, which is a replica of the Tombs of Adam and the Lord Jesus Christ.  

Biete Medhane Alem

The remarkable architecture is the 72 pillars that support the church. These pillars have since been reinforced with concrete blocks but they were made of one piece of rock from top to bottom.

Photo credit: Kafula Mwila – www.kafulamwila.com


Biete Maryam

This is the only church that King Lalibela adorned with interior art and décor. The church has an upper room called Seven Heavens that was used for prayer; seven being the biblical number of completeness.

Photo credit: Kafula Mwila – www.kafulamwila.com

Biete Medhane and Biete Maryam are the only two monolithic churches in the first cluster. The other three Biete Meskel (House of the Cross), Biete Denagel (House of Virgins) and Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael) are semi-monolithic. Biete Golgotha Mikael is said to be the tomb of King Lalibela and holds extraordinary statues of the twelve Apostles, carefully carved out of rock.  Apparently, women are not allowed to enter Biete Golgotha.

Biete Meskel shares the courtyard with Biete Maryam

Photo Credit: Kafula Mwila: www.kafulamwila.com

The second cluster only has one church, located on the Western side. St. Giyorgis, prominently protrudes out of the ground show casing a huge St. George’s Cross. The construction replicates Noah’s Ark, symbolised by three interior tiers. The church is not very large but inside holds wooden work that was used to store scrolls in the 12th century AD.

  St. Giyorgis – view from the top

 Photo credit: Kafula Mwila ---- http://www.kafulamwila.com

St. Giyorgis – view from the courtyard of the church

 Photo credit: Menber Yigizaw

  Lalibela Tour Guide Association

The third cluster of churches, are on the Eastern side; these are all semi-monolithic apart from Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), which was probably the Holy Chapel. Biete Gabriel and Biete Rafael are adjacent and sometimes called the twin churches but in some cases confused as one church. Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercoreus or St. Mark), which was likely a former prison and Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos).

Much has been written about the mysteries that surround the eleven rock hewn churches of Lalibela, in northern Ethiopia but one thing is certain, they bear the most outstanding architecture. On the eastern side of each church is the Biete Lehem or Bethlehem meaning House of bread, where special bread is baked for the Holy Communion by a Monk who is designated for that purpose. No one else is allowed entry into the house of bread.

Biete Gabriel, which also houses Biete Rafael

Photo credit: Kafula Mwila – www.kafulamwila.com

Biete Rafael and Gabriel are known as twin churches

Photo credit: Kafula Mwila- www.kafulamwila.com 

There is much to learn and more to explore in the eleven rock churches. In the next articles we will take a tour inside the churches and learn more about the symbolism that has been incorporated into the culture of the people of Lalibela!

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