The Amazing Rock-Cut Churches of Lalibela

The Amazing Rock-Cut Churches of Lalibela May 17, 2014

Recently I came upon this photo of worshippers gathered for Mass in Ethiopia:

“WHAT?” I thought. “Where is this?!”

And so began my research into the fantastic rock-cut underground churches in Lalibela.

Church of St. George, Lalibela

In the twelfth century, King Lalibela, a member of the Zagwe dynasty which had seized the throne of Ethiopia around 1000 A.D., sought support from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  To garner support, he commissioned a series of twelve extraordinary churches in the small town of Roha (now renamed Lalibela).  He hoped to create a New Jerusalem, a pilgrimage site for Christians who could not make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The sacred architecture of Roha was not like that in the Holy Land, though.  Roha’s churches were actually underground excavations.  According to  

Beta Medhane Alem (House of the Savior of the World)

Each church was created by first carving out a wide trench on all four sides of the rock, then painstakingly chiseling out the interior. The largest church is 40 feet high, and the labor required to complete such a task with only hammers and chisels is astounding.

Popular legend has it that angels came every night to pick up where the workmen had left off. One of the churches, Bet Maryam, contains a stone pillar on which King Lalibela wrote the secrets of the buildings’ construction. It is covered with old cloths and only the priests may look on it.

Bet Merkorios

King Lalibela’s project for gaining the church’s favor had two unexpected results: the creation of a holy place of unparalleled beauty and the king’s conversion to a religious life. After laboring for 20 years, he abdicated his throne to become a hermit, living in a cave and eating only roots and vegetables. To this day, Ethiopian Christians regard King Lalibela as one of their greatest saints.



Ethiopian Orthodox priests on the small streets and pathways at an underground church in Lalibela
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  • Jay Blossom

    I was just there in January. Truly a remarkable, wonderful place — not spoiled by tourism (yet), though it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It feels deeply spiritual, deeply Christian, and yet entirely “other.”

  • Fascinating. Thanks.

  • More here….0…1ac.2.43.img..0.1.76.GLmhr0T2Noc

  • tj.nelson

    There is a former Lutheran church across the street from my house, which became a Seventh Day Adventist church – on Sundays they rent out the church to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. They dress as in the top photo – men and women, they do slight prostrations before entering the church and over all are quite edifying to watch. Liturgy lasts quite a bit longer and everyone stays. I’m so happy they are there.

  • Ben

    They are, however, Monophysites (they don’t believe that Christ had both a human and divine nature), and they reject the 4th ecumenical council. So even the Eastern Orthodox church regards them as heretical.

  • Beautiful. I was captured by these remarkable churches after seeing a model that accompanied the Lucy exhibit from Ethiopia.

    • kathyschiffer

      I’m glad you like them, Bob!