What Are the Rock-Cut Churches of Lalibela?

The town of Lalibela rests in the highlands of Ethiopia. Eleven extraordinary churches mark important pilgrimage sites for the Christian faithful.

Apr 22, 2024By Greg Pasciuto, BA History

what are lalibela rock cut churches


In the mountainous region of northern Ethiopia, visitors will come across a town known as Lalibela. Its small size today hides its extraordinary importance. Within the town and its immediate surroundings are eleven unique churches. All of them were meticulously carved from standing rock hundreds of years ago. Since then, they have been some of the most important pilgrimage sites for Orthodox Christians in Africa’s second-largest country. Our journey takes us deep into Lalibela — its history, architecture, and religious significance to Ethiopian Christianity.


Where Is Lalibela in Ethiopia?

Map of Ethiopia and surrounding countries, with Lalibela marked (in Italian), Source: Kanaga Africa Tours


Lalibela is located in north-central Ethiopia, more than 2,500 meters above sea level. Its population is dwarfed by larger Ethiopian cities like Mekelle or the national capital, Addis Ababa. However, population is never the only factor that determines an area’s importance. As we will soon see, Lalibela’s strategic and religious importance stretches far beyond its immediate surroundings.


A Historical Background of the Town

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Ethiopian pilgrims gather near one of Lalibela’s rock-cut churches, photograph by Stuart Butler, Source: the BBC


To make our tour through Lalibela more interesting, let’s go into some historical background. The exact date Lalibela was founded is unknown, but it may date back over a thousand years. What we know for certain is that it was once called Roha. The town was small for the first several centuries of its existence. Other cities in Ethiopia occupied much more prestigious positions.


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Lalibela’s fortunes would fundamentally change during the 1100s. Near the end of the century, King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela of the Zagwe dynasty oversaw the construction of monumental churches in the ground and cliffsides. According to legend, the king took 24 years to chisel all eleven major churches from the rock. Angels were said to have aided his work.


Ethiopian Orthodox processional cross from the Tigray region, 12th-13th centuries, Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Later Ethiopian tradition frames the building of Lalibela’s churches as a mirror of Jerusalem. Scholars have explored this theory in detail and noticed several key historical connections. During the 13th century, the Ethiopian Church was cut off from the rest of Christendom. The Crusades pitting Christians against Muslims in the Middle East, also isolated Jerusalem after 1187. The rulers of Ethiopia likely constructed the churches of Lalibela to symbolize a new Jerusalem for the Orthodox faithful at home. Doing this would have undoubtedly solidified their own prestige.


The history of Christianity in Ethiopia dates back much further than Lalibela. The Kingdom of Aksum was the first Ethiopian state to convert to the Christian religion. Ethiopian rulers drew their line of descent from this great kingdom, a contemporary of the late Roman Empire.


How Were the Churches Built?

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St George’s Church Lalibela, by Saiko, Source: Wikimedia Commons


As we have already explored, local Ethiopian legends say that King Gebre Mesqel and the angels forged the churches of Lalibela. But what does the archaeological and scientific evidence suggest?


Geologically, the surroundings of the eleven churches of Lalibela are composed of igneous rock. Craftsmen sculpted the rock from the top going down. This meant that the lowest level of the churches would be the last one to take shape. After this, the craftsmen would carve out the churches’ doors. Tunnels were created to connect the churches; only one, Biete Giyorgis, stands on its own. Some of the churches, such as Biete Maryam, also have baptismal pools nearby.


king ezana aksum stele
King Ezana’s Stele in Aksum, a monumental example of ancient Aksumite architecture, Source: ThoughtCo


Scholars believe that some of the churches in Lalibela weren’t originally constructed as houses of worship. Instead, they might have started out as forts or royal strongholds of the ruling Zagwe dynasty. They were converted into churches over time.


Regardless of their original purposes, the churches are constructed in a manner that deliberately mirrors the styles of ancient Aksum. By choosing to sculpt the churches in this style, the Zagwe rulers of Lalibela were likely trying to connect their own history with the Aksumites. After all, for new dynasties in any country, having a solid claim to legitimacy is everything.


What Makes the Churches of Lalibela so Important?

orthodox faithful prayer
Ethiopian Orthodox worshippers in prayer at the Biete Gabriel Raphael, January 27, 2022, Source: Reuters


The rock-cut churches of Lalibela are the most important buildings in their area. They are also the most well-known of Ethiopia’s 200 surviving monolithic church buildings. For foreigners, they represent the pinnacle of Ethiopian craftsmanship and the age-old influence of Ethiopian Christianity. One travel author, writing for Vogue magazine in 2018, has compared visiting the churches of Lalibela to the settlement of Machu Picchu in Peru.


For the Ethiopian Orthodox faithful, however, the significance of the churches of Lalibela is much more spiritual and even personal. Pilgrims have flocked to them from across the Horn of Africa since at least the 12th century. The church’s layout was meant at one point to evoke the sense of a “new Jerusalem.” A river even flows through Lalibela, designed to reflect the Jordan River in the Middle East.


One of the most important Ethiopian Orthodox holidays is Genna (Orthodox Christmas). Thousands of Ethiopians journey to Lalibela every year on January 7 to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and show their devotion to his teachings.


Challenges in Lalibela Today

amhara security forces lalibela
Amhara troops guarding the Church of Saint George in Lalibela, January 25, 2022, Source: Reuters


The importance of the rock-cut churches of Lalibela to Ethiopian Orthodoxy cannot be overstated. Every year, thousands of people from across Ethiopia converge in Lalibela to offer their devotion to God. For Ethiopian Orthodox believers, the churches truly mark the town as the “new Jerusalem.” The churches were even designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1978.


Sadly, however, life in Lalibela (and Ethiopia more broadly) is often difficult in the 21st century. The churches have faced the natural threat of earthquakes, as Ethiopia lies along the East African Rift. Geologists aren’t yet sure if East Africa will split from the rest of the continent millions of years from now.


More immediately pressing for the churches is the threat of human conflict. In 2021, rebels from the northern Tigray region captured Lalibela from the national military twice. Other fighting in November 2023, between the army and Amhara militias, put the churches at risk from artillery fire. Fortunately, the eleven churches of Lalibela remain standing and continue to attract countless pilgrims every year.

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By Greg PasciutoBA HistoryGreg is a Stonehill College graduate and aspiring writer and editor from Boston, MA. When he isn’t working his full-time job, you might find him reading, completing creative word searches, or just looking to learn new skills for life. His historical interests are particularly centered on the history of religion and the interactions of different cultural groups. Not limited to a single geographic region, Greg enjoys uncovering the stories of cultures all around.