The first European to describe the rock churches of Lalibela ascribe the creation to one of the last kings of the Zagwe dynasty, Lalibela, who reigned about 1200A.D.The Zagwe Dynasty had come to power in the eleventh century, one hundred years after Queen Judith a ferocious woman warrior had led her tribes up from semein Mountains to destroy Axum, the capital of the ancient Ethiopia Empire in the north.
The Zagwe kings ruled until the thirteenth century, when a famous priest, tekel Haymanot, persuaded them to abdicate in favor of the descendant of the old Axumite dynasty.Lalibela grew up in Roha, where his brother was king. It is said that bees prophesied his future greatness, social advance and coming riches. In Lalibela you will find main groups of churches, one on each side of the river Jordan and the other church set apart from the rest. The town of Roha –Lalibela lies between the first and the second group of churches.
There are twelve churches and chapels, including various shrines. Four churches are monolithic in the strict sense; the reaming are excavated churches in different degrees of separation from the rock .the churches in group are set on several levels .to carry off the heavy summer rains. The trenches serve as a drainage system to the river Jordan .with churches whose placing conforms to the slope of the terrain, the ridge of the roof ,gutter edges the base of the plinth are slanted in line with it .
Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela
The beginning of rock-cut churches in Ethiopia is dated to the 6th century by the Nine Saints. This rock-church tradition is associated with the birth and burial places of Jesus Christ, which were a cave in Bethelem and carved rock in Gologotha, respectively. In addition to this symbolic importance, churches were built from rocks perhaps for their physical durability and long-lasting.
Although the tradition of rock-hewn church excavation was started earlier in 6th century, it reached at its high level of development during the period of Zagwe Dyansty, particularly during the reign of King Lalibela in the 12th century. In this regard, the famous rock-hewn churches of Laiblea are best examples.
The prominent rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are eleven in number and situated in three groups separated by the seasonal river Jordan. Churches of the first group are believed to have been built first and are usually visited first by many of the tourists. They are Bete Medhane-Alem, Bete Mariam, Bete Mesekel, Bete Denagel, Bete Golgotha and Bete Debre Sina. Churches of the second group are situated south of the Jordan River and comprise Bete Gabriel, Bete Amanuel, Bete Merkorios, and Bete Abba Libanos. In the third group, there is only one isolated church i.e Bete Giorgis. It is located a few minutes walk to the south west of both the first and second group of churches.