The roofs of the Lalibela churches are level with the ground and are reached by stairs descending into narrow trenches. The churches are connected by tunnels and walkways and stretch across sheer drops. The interior pillars of the churches have been worn smooth by the hands of supplicating worshippers.
The rock-cut churches are simply but beautifully carved with such features as fragile-looking windows, moldings of various shapes and sizes, different forms of crosses, swastikas (an Eastern religious motif) and even Islamic traceries. Several churches also have wall paintings.
Each church has its own resident monk who appears in the doorway in colorful brocade robes. Holding one of the church’s elaborate processional crosses, usually made of silver, and sometimes a prayer staff, these monks are quite happy to pose for pictures. Some sport incongruously modern sunglasses with their splendid ensemble.
There are 11 rock-cut churches at Lalibela, the most spectacular of which is Bet Giorgis (St. George’s). Located on the western side of the cluster of churches, it is cut 40 feet down and its roof forms the shape of a Greek cross. It was built after Lalibela’s death (c.1220) by his widow as a memorial to the saint-king. It is a magnificent culmination of Lalibela’s plans to build a New Jerusalem, with its perfect dimensions and geometrical precision.
Unlike some of the other churches, St. George’s is plain inside. A curtain shields the Holy of Holies, and in front of it usually stands a priest displaying books and paintings to visitors. In the shadows of one fo the arms of the cruciform church is its tabot, or copy of the Ark of the Covenant. One explorer was allowed to open it and found it empty. No one was able to tell him what happened to its contents.
In the “Northern Group” across the main road from St. George, the most notable church is Beta Medhane Alem, home to the Lalibela Cross and believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world. It is thought to be a copy of St. Mary of Zion in Axum.
Bete Medhane Alem is linked by walkways and tunnels to Beta Maryam (St. Mary’s), possibly the oldest of the churches. In the east wall of the church is an array of geometric carved windows in a vertical line. From the bottom up is: a Maltese cross in a square; a semi-circle shape possibly copied from the Axum stelae; a Latin cross; and a simple square window.
The windows illuminate the Holy of Holies in which the church’s copy of the Ark is placed. Other decorations include a Star of David combined with a Maltese cross, a Sun with a smiling human face flanked by eight-spoked wheels, Mary on a donkey accompanied by Joseph, and an Annunciation.
Next to Beta Maryam is Beta Golgotha, known for its artwork which includes life-sized carvings of saints on the walls. It is also home to the tomb of King Lalibela, over which stands a gold-draped Ark. The Western group is completed by the Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam.
The “Eastern Group” includes:
Farther afield lie the monastery of Ashetan Maryam and Yimrehane Kristos church (possibly from the 11th century).