This small and isolated community set deep in the Simyen Mountains of central Ethiopia is one of the most remarkable Christian religious centers in Africa. Within the confines of the town are no fewer than eleven monolithic churches, hewn from the native red sandstone of the Ethiopian Plateau. Tradition attributes them all to Emperor Lalibala of the Zagwé dynasty (1181-1221), who had his capital here and for whom the town is named. Modern scholarship suggests, however, that the churches were made over a considerable period of time, from the reign of Lalibala to sometime in the fourteenth century.
Among monolithic monuments, the churches of Lalibala have sometimes been compared to the great rock temples of Abu Simbel in Egypt and to the shrines at Petra in Jordan. They are unique in that they are not cut into cliff faces but are hewn downward from the level plateau surface. For seven of the churches, a wide and deep trench was first cut downward so that it surrounded a monolithic mass of stone, into which chambers, doors, and windows were then hewn. Each church thus gives the impression that it is standing in the bottom of a pit, the rooftop being level with the surrounding ground. However, four of the Lalibala churches are “grotto churches.” They are not completely freestanding but are surrounded by a trench on only one, two, or three sides.
The largest of the Lalibala churches, called Medhane Alem (savior of the world), measures 112 x 80 feet (34 x 24 m) and is 37 feet (11 m) high. It has a simple rectangular plan comprising a central nave flanked by two aisles on either side, all of equal width. There is a small narthex chamber at the west end, and at the east a wide rectangular sanctuary area flanked by smaller sacristies. The nave and aisles are separated from each other by imitation colonnading (actually hewn from the monolithic rock), and there was originally a colonnade running around the exterior of the building as well.
Many of the other churches at Lalibala are also rectangular, but they have only one aisle on either side of the nave and do not have a narthex. Typically there is a centrally placed door in the west wall, giving directly onto the nave, and additional doors in the north and south walls. The church of Biet Maryam (house of Mary) has projecting porches at the north, south, and west, hewn from the same stone mass as the body of the church.
One of the most spectacular of the Lalibala churches is Biet Giorgios (house of George), which has the shape of a perfect equilateral cross. It is two stories in height, but the interior consists of only a single very tall chamber.
A distinctive feature of all the Lalibala churches is their elaborate exterior decoration, using alternating advanced and recessed panels, ranged either horizontally or vertically. This is a very ancient tradition in Ethiopian architecture, visible also in the monuments of Axum and traceable ultimately to South Arabian influence. There are many variations in the paneling scheme on each individual church, and no two of the buildings are closely similar in their decoration.
Doorways and windows are especially decorated; windows frequently have an arched top or are cut in the shape of a cross or swastika. Additional paneled decoration is found on the roofs of many churches. Interiors are lavishly adorned with carved scrollwork, geometric and floral friezes, and effigies of saints set in shallow niches. The decoration of the Lalibala churches has sometimes been attributed to Egyptian Coptic artisans, but this has not been historically proved.
There are at least a dozen other rock churches in the immediate vicinity of Lalibala, and scores of others throughout northern Ethiopia. Their exact number is still unknown, but a survey in 1966 discovered the existence of three dozen such churches that had never previously been seen by outsiders. It is generally conceded, however, that the churches at Lalibala are unmatched in the elegance of their decoration.
Before 1960 Lalibala was accessible only by muleback, and was reported to be three days’ travel from the nearest road. In 1960 a landing strip was constructed in the valley below the town, and regular air service was inaugurated in the dry season. A network of primitive roads leads to the town and to some of the nearby rock churches, and the area has become a significant tourist attraction. Extensive renovation was carried out in some of the Lalibala churches in the years after 1967.
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- Bidder, I. Lalibala. Cologne, 1959.
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