The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia




12th Century


Lalibela (previously known as Roha) is a small town in north-central Ethiopia. It was the capital of the Zagwe dynasty, which ruled over Ethiopia from the 10th to the mid-12th century. Lalibela is the location of Ethiopia's most famous complex of 11 rock-hewn churches, each of them carved from a giant slab of stone. Unlike the traditional practice of ground-up construction, these have been built from top-down. Some of the churches are connected by tunnels.


The history of the construction of the churches is shrouded in mystery. According to legend, God requested the King of Ethiopia, Lalibela (c.1200–1250), to build the churches as a replica of Jerusalem. It is said that men and angels worked together to construct them, the men working during the day and the angels working during the night.


Lalibela ranks among the top world architectural marvels. It is characterised by a manifestly African architecture, one entirely inspired by Axumite tradition of rock architecture and also by the world-view and life style of those cultural attributes that have shaped other aspects of Ethiopian tradition and history.


Photo: irisharchaeology.ie

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