Bete Giyorgis in Lalibela is one of 13 stone-hewn churches from the 13th century

The Incredible Stone-Hewn Churches of Ethiopia

The Incredible Stone-Hewn Churches of Ethiopia

Atlas Obscura
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

Ella Morton is a writer working on The Atlas Obscura, a book about global wonders, curiosities, and esoterica adapted from Atlas Obscura. Follow her on Twitter.