Lalibela’s churches - A view from our expert author

Bet Gebriel-Rafael in Lalibela Ethiopia by Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library,

The Bet Gebriel-Rafael in Lalibela has a fortress-like appearance.

The excavation of the churches is something of a mystery – some sources estimate that in the order of 40,000 people would have been required to carve them – so it’s not surprising that their origin has been clouded in legend.

Lalibela’s churches are divided into two clusters, separated by the Jordan River – one local legend has it that the river was given this name after King Lalibela returned from Jerusalem. The northwest cluster comprises seven churches: Bet Medhane Alem, Bet Maryam, Bet Meskel, Bet Danaghel, Bet Debre Sina, Bet Golgotha and the Selassie Chapel. The southeast cluster consists of five churches: Bet Emanuel, Bet Mercurios, Bet Abba Libanos, Bet Lehem and Bet Gebriel-Rafael. A 13th church, Bet Giyorgis, stands discrete from the two main clusters.

The various churches of Lalibela were constructed using one of two different methods. Bet Giyorgis and the churches in the northwest cluster are mostly excavated from below the ground, and are surrounded by courtyards and trenches, so that they mimic normal buildings. Several of these churches are monoliths or three-quarter monoliths – free from the surrounding rock on three or four sides – a style of excavation that is unique to Ethiopia. The churches of the southeast cluster are similar to many churches in Tigrai, in that most of them were excavated from a vertical rock face by exploiting existing caves or cracks in the rock.

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