(redirected from Lalibella)
Also found in: Dictionary.

Lalibela (Ethiopia)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Among the most spectacular holy sites in the world are a group of eleven churches that have been carved out of rock of the Lasta Mountains some 250 miles north of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The origin of these buildings is ascribed to King Lalibela (c. 1185–1225), a ruler of the Zagwe dynasty, which had come to power a century before his reign. Popular legends assert that the rulers of the Zagwe dynasty were the descendants of the handmaid of the Queen of Sheba, though there is no evident to support the claim.

During his reign, Lalibela made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a trip that deeply affected his psyche. One of his first actions subsequently was to rename the stream that flowed through the city of Roha (a name reflecting the red volcanic rock that underlies the town), from which he ruled the land, after the Jordan River. He renamed a local hill after the Mount of Olives. His efforts to create a second Jerusalem culminated in the carving of the eleven churches. Seven of the churches were carved straight into the cliffs of the mountain. Their sanctuaries weave deep into the hillside. Four of the churches were carved from blocks of the volcanic rock that were isolated by excavating downward. The churches are connected to each other by small passages and tunnels. The entire project took twenty-four years.

While the trip to Jerusalem was the occasion of the church building, Lalibela hagiography looks to a vision the king had early in his life. His older brother, the previous king, tried to poison Lalibela. Instead of dying, Lalibela was carried by an angel to heaven, where he was shown the work he would later accomplish.

Following the completion of the churches, Lalibela abdicated his throne and assumed the role of a hermit. He spent the rest of his life in the holy space he had created. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church later canonized Lalibela and renamed the city in his honor. When the Zagwe Dynasty came to an end in the thirteenth century, political power moved southward, but Lalibela remained the spiritual heart of Ethiopian Orthodoxy.

Thousands of pilgrims visit Lalibela the year round, but especially in the two weeks following Christmas. Most of the churches remain in good condition, and much of the original decoration of the interiors has survived. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has ranked the churches the eighth most unique historical site in the world. A select set of pilgrims, young women, make their way to the pool outside of the Church of Saint Mary, where many will spend the night immersed in the pool in hopes of ending their barrenness. All the churches are still active centers of worship.


Findlay, L. The Monolithic Churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia. Cairo, 1943.
Gerster, Georg. Churches in Rock: Early Christian Art in Ethiopia. London: Phaidon, 1970.
Irmgard, Bidder. Lalibela: The Monolithic Churches of Ethiopia. Cologne: M. DuMont Schauberg, 1958.
The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena © 2008 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(or Lalibala), a city in northeastern Ethiopia, in Wallo Province, located east of Lake Tana on the slopes of Mount Abuna Josef. Lalibela was a medieval religious center and the capital of the Zague dynasty (12th-13th century). It is well known for its monolithic three-aisled churches. Of simplified geometric form they are hewn out of volcanic tufa (Biet Mariam, Medhane Alem, Biet Emmanuel, Biet Mercurios, Biet Giorgis, Biet Gabriel-Rufael). Reliefs and wall painting in these churches fancifully combine Christian and pagan symbols and motifs.


Monti della Corte, A. A. Lalibela. Rome, 1940.
Bidder, J. Lalibela. London, 1959.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
We got to the Rift Valley, the city of Lalibella, and the Simien Mountains.
A plunging, four-hour ride on a shuddering gray plane brought us to a town with the suspiciously gay name of Lalibella. "Lalibella!" my mother exclaimed in mock dismay as its airport -- a manure field -- rose up to meet us.
The Hotel Lalibella seemed made entirely of peat -- and peat which had taken its kicks and beatings from the desert wind for a long time.
Currently, food relief is managing to stabilise prices in Lalibella, Alamata, Sekota and Woldia.