Lalibela: Ethiopia's Holiest City

Lalibela is a town in the Amhara region of northern Ethiopia. It’s known for its distinctive rock-cut churches dating from the 12th and 13th centuries, which are pilgrimage sites for Coptic Christians. Carved out of rock, the subterranean monoliths include huge Bete Medhane Alem, and cross-shaped Bete Giyorgis. Many are joined by tunnels and trenches, and some have carved bas-reliefs and colored frescoes inside.Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities, second only to Aksum , and a center of pilgrimage . Unlike Aksum, the population of Lalibela is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox Christian.

Ethiopia was one of the earliest nations to adopt Christianity in the first half of the fourth century, and its historical roots date to the time of the Apostles. The churches themselves date from the seventh to thirteenth centuries, and are traditionally dated to the reign of the Zagwe dynasty king Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (r. ca. 1181–1221 AD)During the reign of Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (a member of the Zagwe Dynasty , who ruled Ethiopia in the late 12th century and early 13th century), the current town of Lalibela was known as Roha. The saintly king was named so, because a swarm of bees is said to have surrounded him at his birth, which his mother took as a sign of his future reign as Emperor of Ethiopia. The names of several places in the modern town and the general layout of the rock-cut churches themselves are said to mimic names and patterns observed by Lalibela during the time he spent as a youth in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Lalibela, revered as a saint, is said to have seen Jerusalem, and then attempted to build a new Jerusalem as his capital in response to the capture of old Jerusalem by Muslims in 1187. Each church was carved from a single piece of rock to symbolize spirituality and humility.

Christian faith inspires many features with Biblical names – even Lalibela’s river is known as the River Jordan. Lalibela remained the capital of Ethiopia from the late 12th into the 13th century. Though the dating of the churches is not well established, most are thought to have been built during the reign of Lalibela, namely during the 12th and 13th centuries.

UNESCO identifies 11 churches:

The Northern Group:
Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), home to the Lalibela Cross.
Biete Maryam (House of Miriam/House of Mary ), possibly the oldest of the churches, and a replica of the Tombs of Adam and Christ.
Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael), known for its arts and said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela)
Biete Meskel (House of the Cross )
Biete Denagel (House of Virgins)

The Western Group:
Biete Giyorgis (Church of Saint George ), thought to be the most finely executed and best preserved church.

The Eastern Group:
Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel ), possibly the former royal chapel
Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St Mercoreos/House of St Mark ), which may be a former prison
Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos)
Biete Gabriel-Rufael (House of the angels Gabriel , and Raphael ) possibly a former royal palace, linked to a holy bakery .
Biete Lehem (Bethlehem Hebrew: בֵּית לֶחֶם , House of Holy Bread).
Farther afield, lie the monastery of Ashetan Maryam and Yimrehane Kristos Church, (possibly eleventh century, built in the Aksumite fashion, but within a
cave ).

This tourist destination is a very attractive destination for Christians and it also offers architectural knowledge as the buildings were built and styled in another century.

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