The churches of the first main group lie in their rock cradles one behind the other north of the river Jordan. The original approach might well have been from the river Jordan up to the churches Golgota-Oebre Sin a (Mika’el) in the west. The whole complex, seen in an east-westerly direction, may be divided in­to three smaller groups: Bet Medhane Alem in the east, the Bet Maryam group in the center, and the twin church Golgota ­Debre Sina (Mika’el) With the Selassie Chapel in the west. While each sub-group has a courtyard of its own, the whole complex is surrounded by a deep outer trench.

BET MEDHANE ALEM (House of the Redeemer of the World)

Bet Medhane AlemApproaching the most eastern church of this group, Bet Medhane Alem, you fifes catch a glimpse of the roof, decorated with relief crosses connected by blind arcades, and the upper part of the solemn colonnade surrounding the church: The tuff, from which the church is carved, glows a typical deep pink colour in striking contrast to the brownish-yellow earth and green-leaved trees of the landscape. Standing in the courtyard you face the largest of the rock-hewn churches.

It has been cut free from a block of Stone 33.7 m. in length, 23.7 m. in width and 11. 5 m. in height. It is a noble structure, standing on its plinth with its pitched roof and surrounding external columns, somewhat reminiscent of ancient Greek temple architecture.

A theory put forward by various scholars is that Bet Medhane Alem is a copy in rock of the original Church of Our Lady of Zion at Axum, the principal shrine of Ethiopia which was destroyed in the sixteenth century by the Muslim leader Ahm­ed Gran, the Left-Handed


Bet Maryam Church Of this group, Bet Maryam is the most important church. Indeed, it is also the most beloved, not only of the Lalibela clergy but also of the many pilgrims streaming into its courtyard an holy days. This popularity cannot be ascribed exclusively to the legend that King Lalibela himself favoured this church above all having attended mass there daily. (A “box” of the royal family of Lalibela is still shown and the western wall of the courtyard ap­posite the main entrance.)

A part from the roof, decorated with a simple relief cross, the. Exterior has scanty decoration. There are mouldings running horizontally around the walls. Of more interest are the parches, each with an almost flat, very slightly pitched roof, a double entrance beneath round  corbelled arches, a cen­tral pillar supporting the ceiling, and a doorway in Axumite style with carved monkey-head corner pasts. Note the bas-reliefs above the western parch and its entrance columns.

Interior Painting in Bet MaryamInterior The richness of decoration will immediately strike you. The harmony of the church Plan, however – two flat-roofed aisles, a vaulted nave separated by a channel arch from the Sanctuary – should not be overlooked. Around the high walls of the nave runs a frieze of blind Window farmed by pro­truding beams at each corner.

With great reverence the priests will show you a particular pillar in the centre which is covered with a cloth. This is the “amd”. “Amd” is the Amharic word for “Pillar” and the pillar is’ the symbol of the unity of faith. The priests explain that Christ touched the pillar when appearing to King Lalibela in one of his visions. Since that time the past and the future of the world are written on it. Since man is too weak to bear the truth revealed by God, the pillar is covered. Although it is dif­ficult to follow the legends told by the priests do they reveal an astonishingly rich knowledge of medieval folklore.


The chapel of Bet Maskal has been excavated in a bulge in the northern wall of the Bet Maryam courtyard. It is a broad gallery of 11 m. length and 3.4 m. width. A row of four pillars divides the space into two aisles spanned by arcades. The doorways show imitation of monkey-head framework. Beams of light deflect downwards into the chapel from two windows, one of them having a swastika design through which is pierced a Greek cross, while the sanctuary window opening has a Maltese cross motif. A frieze of arches between two projecting horizontal courses finishes the facade on top.


Jutting out at the south of the Bet Maryam court-­yard is the little chapel of Bet Danaghel (8.6 m. length and 3.6 m. height). This tiny chapel is connected with one of the most’ fascinating legends of Lalibela. Priests will tell you that the chapel was constructed in honour of maidens martyred under Julian. We encounter here an aspect of Ethiopia’s. Contact with the early Christian world, and of the tradition that has served to safeguard this memory. The legend of the martyrdom of the maidens is ‘reported in the Ethiopian history of martyrs (synax­arium); the memorial day of the maidens is the 10th of Hedar (November) in the Ethiopian calendar. Julian the Apostate ruled Rome 10 the mid-fourth century, at the time when Christianity was first brought to Axum. While the father of Julian, Constantine the Great, had declared Christianity the state religion, Julian, having studied at the schools of philosophy in Athens, tried to reintroduce the worship of the ancient gods by force. His reign is marked by further martyr- Dom of faithful Christians.


This is the most mysterious complex in Lalibela, housing its holiest shrine, the Selassie Chapel, and – according to the whispers of the priests – perhaps evens the tomb of King Lalibela himself. Not by accident is it here that some of the most beautiful processional crosses of Lalibela will be shown to you: a very rich and elaborate metal cross, black with age and decorated with inlaid circles, is said to have belonged to King Lalibela, His rod and stool may (but not must) also be shown to you, His “stool” is a wooden manber, a’ carved cruciform. Container of the labat on six legs. While the ancient entrance to this group was probably from the west, passing the hollow­ed block of the Tomb of Adam, the courtyard is now entered from the south, being connected by the trench leading to the Bet Maryam churches. A side door leads to the first church, Bet Debre Sina or Bet Mika’el.


The presence of several tabots in the twin churches of Golgota-Debre Sina causes some confusion in that the church of Debre Sina is also called Bet Mika’el. Bet Debre Sina displays a proper east-west orientation and has a raised chancel. The holy of holies is in the east. Thus, we may assume that it has always been an in­dependent and separate church. It is a semi-monolithic crea­tion measuring 9.5 X 8.5 m. and resting on a steep plinth 3 m, in height. On three sides it is exposed by excavation to a trench, the northern side leading to Bet Golgota.


Leaving Bet Debre Sina you enter its northern twin church. Bet Golgota. Bet Golg’ota represents the type of excavated church with one worked facade (the west face). Tradition says that there are three tabots in the eastern part of the church.


From Bet Golgota a doorway at the east end of the right-hand nave next to the one leading to (he “Iyasus-Cell” opens on to the Selassie Chapel.

This holy place is rarely open even to the priests themselves.               The shrine is completely imprisoned in the rock. The single pillar referred to above supports the roof with its barrel-vault in the rear section and flat-arch above the plat­form with the three monolithic altars. This pillar, which has no base, rises up more than five meters to the apex of the vault. The pseudo-capital of corbels connects it with the arched ribs running in cross-shape along the ceiling.


Impressive in its simplicity, a huge square block of stone stands 10 a deep trench 10 front of the western face of Bet Golgota. This is the Tomb of Adam. The block has been hollowed out, the ground floor serving as the western entrance to the first group of churches. The upper floor houses a hermit’s cell. Again it is a cross that is the only decoration of this “tomb”: the large opening in the eastern wall provides light for the cell and has the shape of a har­monious croix pattee with flat-pitched finials.