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Rock-Hewn Churches

EthiopiaWestern Highlands & Great Rift ValleyLalibela


Rock-Hewn Churches 

Eleven medieval monolithic cathedrals were fashioned out of rock in a mountainous location in Ethiopia's heartland, around 645 kilometers from Addis Ababa. Their construction is credited to King Lalibela, who set out to establish a ‘New Jerusalem' in the 12th century after Muslim conquests interrupted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Following the collapse of the Aksum Empire, Lalibela prospered.

There are two main groups of churches – to the north of the river Jordan: Biete Medhani Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), Biete Mariam (House of Mary), Biete Maskal (House of the Cross), Biete Denagel (House of Virgins), Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael); and to the south of the river, Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercoreos), Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos), Biete Gabriel Raphael (House of Gabriel Raphael), and Biete Lehem (House of Holy Bread). The eleventh church, Biete Ghiorgis (House of St. George), is isolated from the others, but connected by a system of trenches.

The churches were hewn from the living rock of monolithic blocks, rather than being built in the customary manner. Doors, windows, columns, multiple floors, roofs, and other features were chiseled out of these blocks. An vast system of drainage ditches, trenches, and ceremonial corridors, some with access to hermit caves and catacombs, was added to this massive undertaking.

Biete Medhani Alem is thought to be the world's largest monolithic church, with five aisles, while Biete Ghiorgis has a remarkable cruciform layout. The majority were most likely utilized as churches from the start, while Biete Mercoreos and Biete Gabriel Rafael may have been royal homes at one time. Murals adorn several of the rooms' interiors.

The village of Lalibela features two storey round buildings, known as the Lasta Tukuls, built of local red stone near the churches. Since the 12th century, Coptic Christians have made pilgrimages to these magnificent buildings.

The Rock-Hewn Churches were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

(Source UNESCO)


  • EthiopiaWestern Highlands & Great Rift ValleyLalibela

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