legends of lalibela & bet medhane alem {northern group of churches}

Friday, October 26:  As soon as we deposit our bags at the hotel, we visit the northern group of churches, which include the following: Bet Medhane Alem, home to the Lalibela Cross and said to be the largest monolithic church in the world, is possibly a copy of St. Mary of Zion church in Aksum. It is linked to Bet Maryam (possibly the oldest of the churches), Bet Golgotha (known for its arts and said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela), Bet Mikael, the Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of AdamBet Meskel and Bet Danaghel, a semi-chapel and chapel.


Bet Medhane Alem (Savior of the World), said to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world, measures 33.5m by 23.5m and is over 11.5m high (approximately 110 by 77 feet and over 37 feet high).   Thirty-four large rectangular columns surround the church, and the three joined at each corner supposedly represent the Holy Trinity.  Inside, 38 columns support the gabled roof, according to Lonely Planet Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Our guide shows us three empty graves in one corner, prepared for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Cross-shaped panels pierce the walls.  This church holds the legendary 7kg gold Lalibela cross, but we aren’t afforded a glimpse of it today.

Bet Medhane Alem (Savior of the World) with its unsightly UNESCO roof & scaffolding

Legends and history of Lalibela:

According to one legend, King Lalibela was poisoned by his half-brother.  While in a three-day coma, the king was transported to heaven, where he was instructed to return to Ethiopia and build a New Jerusalem there.  Another legend says that he went into exile to Jerusalem and vowed that when he returned he would create a New Jerusalem. Others attribute the building of the churches to Templars from Europe.  Some of the holy places within the Lalibela church complex mimic the names found in Jerusalem: the River Jordan, Cavalry, and the Tomb of Adam, for instance.  The king set out to build this new Jerusalem after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land.  Lalibela flourished after the decline of the Aksum Empire.Some scholars believe that the styles, as well as the state of preservation, of the different churches vary so much, that it’s unlikely they were all built during Lalibela’s reign.

An exterior wall of Bet Medhane Alem

Some scholars estimate it would have taken a 40,000 man workforce to build the churches; local legends claim that human workers labored the daylight hours away, with celestial beings taking over for night duty, doing double the amount of labor of their human counterparts, enabling the churches to be built at astounding speed.

Bet Medhane Alem, thought to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world

Lalibela is an important place of Ethiopian Christianity, still today a place of pilgrimage and devotion.  The churches today are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  UNESCO has built rather unsightly scaffolding and roofing over many of the churches to protect their interior frescoes from water seepage, a necessary evil.

side view of Bet Medhane Alem

According to UNESCO, the churches were not constructed in a traditional way but rather were hewn from the living rock of monolithic blocks. These blocks were further chiseled out, forming doors, windows, columns, various floors, roofs etc. This gigantic work was further completed with an extensive system of drainage ditches, trenches and ceremonial passages, some with openings to hermit caves and catacombs.

a little shrine just inside the door of Bet Medhane Alem

Four of the churches were finished as completely free-standing structures, attached to their mother rock only at their bases. The remaining churches range from semi-detached to ones whose facades are the only features that have been ‘liberated’ from the rock.

one of the four aisles off the barrel-vaulted nave inside Bet Medhane Alem

Our guide for today is Masala, a young Ethiopian man who grew up in the village. He is kind and conveys so many little bits of knowledge to us, that I’m really happy we have him along.

drums used for the chanting services that are still held in the church to this day

inside Bet Medhane Alem

Today, every time we enter a church, we must leave our shoes outside.  We have a shoe minder today who follows us to each of the churches, where he sits outside and “minds” our shoes.  He glows with love and each time, as I struggle with untying and tying my  tennis shoes, he helps me put them back on my feet.

we leave our shoes outside of each church

our smiling and helpful shoe minder

Categories: Africa, Bet Medhane Alem, Ethiopia, Lalibela, Lalibela rock-hewn churches | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “legends of lalibela & bet medhane alem {northern group of churches}

  1. Amazing! More of those “how on earth could they do that?!” creations. I love the shoe minder – the concept and his very pleasant face. Can you imagine – “and what do you do each day?” – “oh, I mind shoes.”

    • Yes, Carol, I love the idea of the “shoe minder” too! Yes, those churches are really amazing when you realize not only did they chisel them out of solid rock, but then they had to chisel out the insides too. What on earth gives people these visions?

  2. Pingback: Lalibela, Ethiopia « a nomad in the land of nizwa

  3. absolutely people will love this, Thank you for sharing my holly country LALIBELA’s history and picture to your friends Mrs Carol.


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