Approaching the town of Roha-Lalibeia from the south, you will see, south of the river Jordan, a bastion of red tuff severed from the rock plateau in the north, east and south by a broad artificial outer trench, eleven meters deep. Another deep cen­tral trench (partly filled up with earth today) cuts this area into two parts, leaving at its end a cone-shaped hill. An old en­trance led from this central trench to the sanctuaries mainly by way of narrow subterranean passages. Only later on were the churches connected with the outer trench by small, roughly cut openings, and simple logs laid across the carefully planned trenches in the courtyard.

The Original function of this complex of churches has not yet been clarified. Two of them were certainly planned as such, Bet Emanuel and Bet Abba Libanos. They have a proper church plan and are oriented to the east. Were the other two, as authorities claim, part of the residence of the Zagwe, once displaying the splendour of a royal court where embassies from neighbouring kingdoms were received? If so, since the fall of the Zagwe, these too have become churches. This second group comprises, from east to west, the churches and sanctuaries of Bet Emanuel, Bet Mer­curios, Bet Abba Libanos, the Chapel of Bet Lehem and Bet Gabriel-Rufa’el.


Bet Emanuel Art historians consider Bet Emanuel to be the finest and most impressive church in Lalibela. Looked at from above, it’s mighty. F1at pitched roof can be seen glistening from the rock cradle that houses the church: It is the only true monolithic structure of this group, carefully sculptured from a block 18 x 12 x 12 m. The church offers an almost classic example of Axumite style despite the fact that the floor and side plans follow the true basilica pattern with a proper east-west orientation.


Several legends are connected with St. Mercurios, and the Ethiopian synaxarium mentions several of them. One, St. Mercurios, recalls the contacts of early Christian Ethiopia with the Roman Empire as did the fifty maidens of Bet Danaghel referred to above. And Rome again is represented by Emperor Julian the Apostate, while St. Mercurios stands for the Christian faith. This upright martyr professed his faith to Julian and was con­demned to be beheaded as were the young maidens com­memorated by Bet Danaghel.

The church is neither orientated not conventionally planned. Perhaps, therefore, its dedication is of a much later date than its construction and it originally served a secular purpose. A house of justice perhaps, since objects of a secular function have been found in deep trenches excavated recently, among them shackles for the ankles of prisoners! The clergy of Lalibela perhaps internationally tolerated the partial collapse of the building and only after a long time convened it into a shrine for worship. The part serving today as a church occupies the


Bet Aba LibanosAgain a legend is connected with this church: Lalibela’s wife, Maskal Kebra, with the help of angels, is said to have created this church in one night. It is dedicated to one of the most famous monastic saints of the Ethiopian Church, Abba libanos.


Abba Libanosyou may reach Bet Lehem by a passageway 50 m. long that starts at the tight-hand aisle of Bet Emanuel, and passes Bet Metcurios and the courtyard of Abba Libanos. The shrine has been shaped into a cone by the central trench; the tunnel still winds up in spiral form within the hill and ends in a low, round room. A tree-trunk in the room serves as a central pillar.

It has to be admitted that the original function of this shrine is not known. As a matter of fact, it has three names: “Hermit’s Cell of King Lalibela”’, “Bet Lehem, the Bakery of the Eucharistic Bread” and “Stable of King Lalibela’s Horse”.


Bet Gebreil-RuphaelThis church is more difficult to describe in character and situation than the others. Its disorientation and unusual plan suggest that it was originally not intended to serve as a church. Instead, the floor plan is labyrinthine: three angular halls with pillars and pilasters are squeezed between two courtyards. The most impressive part of the church is the monumental facade; this, in addition to remains of built-up stone walls , gives rise to the assumption that the roof of this structure once had a parapet and that we are standing here in front of-the fortress like royal residence of the Zagwe! The original approach is now blocked. It started in the east in front of the Bet Lehem Chapel. A huge gate was cut through the rock walls of the central trench, by which one could proceed across a hewn-out courtyard, climb up three broad steps and enter the church by an Axumite door. Today, the church is usually entered from the top of the rock near Bet Emanuel in the east, by a small bridge of logs leading over the central trench.