The Incredible Stone-Hewn Churches of Ethiopia

Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
Feb. 19 2014 10:57 AM

Lalibela: The Holy Ethiopian City of Stone-Hewn Churches

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

In the northern highlands of Ethiopia is the holy city of Lalibela. Before the 12th century, Lalibela was known as Roha. Then came the birth of the boy who would be king. According to legend, his arrival into the world brought a swarm of bees, who buzzed around his head to signal his royal future. The boy was thus named Lalibela, meaning "the bees recognize his sovereignty."

When Lalibela became king, he embarked on a most ambitious project: the creation of a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia for Christians who could not make the pilgrimage to the original. As part of this holy city, Lalibela envisioned a dozen churches carved from stone — not made of stones, but each one literally carved out of one unbroken rock with its roof at ground level.


Details on the construction process have been lost in the mists of time, but 13 churches were indeed built between the late 12th and 13th century. These were no simple structures — the rock-hewn churches had arched windows, moldings with religious symbols, and murals covering the interior walls. Built on either side of a trench — which was named the River Jordan in recognition of the new holy city — they connected to one another through a series of tunnels.

In the ensuing centuries, seismic shifts, erosion, and water have severely damaged the churches. But the last one to be built — Bete Giyorgis, or the Church of St. George — remains spectacular. Extending 40 feet down into the stone and shaped like a cross, Bete Giyorgis continues to draw Christian pilgrims and curious tourists.

Curious George:

View Bet Giyorgis in a larger map



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.


Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 16 2014 11:46 PM The Scariest Campfire Story More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.