Lalibela is a town in northern Ethiopia that is famous for its monolithic rock-cut churches. Lalibela is one of Ethiopia's holiest cities, second only to Aksum, and is a center of pilgrimage for much of the country.
Unlike Aksum, the population of Lalibela is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox The layout and names of the major buildings in Lalibela are widely accepted, especially by the local clergy, to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem. This has led some experts to date the current form of its churches to the years following the capture of Jerusalem in 1187 by the Muslim soldier Saladin.
The churches of Lalibela were not constructed — they were excavated. 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.There are 13 churches, assembled in four groups:
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.
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.
The churches have been in continuous use since they were built in the 12th century. The first Europeans to see these extraordinary holy sites were Portuguese explorers in the 1520s, one of whom noted in his journal that the sights were so fantastic, he expected readers of his descriptions would accuse him of lying. Source: African History and Spirituality
The Western Group: Bete Giyorgis, said to be the most finely executed and best preserved church.
The Eastern Group: Bete Amanuel (possibly the former royal chapel), Bete Merkorios (which may be a former prison), Bete Abba Libanos and Bete Gabriel-Rufael (possibly a former royal
palace), linked to a holy bakery.
Farther afield lie the monastery of Ashetan Maryam and Yimrehane Kristos church (possibly eleventh century, built in the Aksumite fashion but within a cave).
Yimrehane Kristos church
Architecture of Sub Saharan and Sahellan Africa