The town of Lalibela was previously known as Loha, it was renamed to commemorate the 12th-century King Lalibela (1181-1221) of the Zagwe Dynasty who seized the Ethiopian throne around 1000AD and was the dominant power in the country for more than a century.
Ongoing challenges to his throne resulted in the King seeking the support of the powerful Ethiopian Orthodox Church by commissioning the construction of these extraordinary churches in this small ancient town.
King Lalibela pledged to create a New Jerusalem which would rival the powerful Axum, where the Ark of the Covenant is still rumoured to exist.
According to some reports, he had travelled to the Holy Land and was inspired by what he saw. But the king made no attempt to copy the churches of the Holy Land instead in his quest to create a new sacred city the churches were excavated from solid rock.
The skill, knowledge and workforce needed to create the churches equalled that required to build the pyramids. The first four deep, wide connected trenches were hacked out and then the interior was painstakingly chiselled out to form doors, windows, columns, floors and ceilings.
The exteriors were also chiselled to create beautiful smooth facades. The buildings are monolithic and carved from a sloping mass of red volcanic scoria underlaid by dark grey basalt.
They are interconnected by a maze of tunnels and passages which lead to hermit caves and catacombs. The churches all differ in design and style and some have archaic features and architectural elements from earlier times suggesting that they were constructed over a wider period than the reign of King Lalibela.
This however adds to their mystery and enigma.
The largest church is 40 feet high, and the skilled labour required to complete such a task with only hammers and chisels is unimaginable today.
Popular legend has it that angels came every night to continue where the workmen had left off.
One of the churches, Bet Maryam, contains a stone pillar on which King Lalibela is said to have written the secrets of the buildings' construction.
It is covered with old cloths and only the priests may look at it. Two of the churches are decorated with fascinating wall paintings and carved figures.
The historical, cultural and architectural significance of these edifices has earned them inclusion in the World Heritage List and many have canopies to protect them from the sun and rain.
King Lalibela's project for gaining the Ethiopian Orthodox church's favour had two unexpected results he succeeded in the creation of a holy place of unparalleled beauty and after devoting 20 years to his vision he abdicated his throne to become a hermit where he lived in a cave and ate only roots and vegetables.
To this day, Ethiopian Christians regard King Lalibela as one of their greatest saints.
The churches have survived intact although weathering has affected them but they are still in use and have been since the 12th century.
The first Europeans to see these extraordinary holy sites were Portuguese explorers in the 1520s, one of whom noted in his journal that the sights were so fantastical he expected readers of his descriptions to accuse him of lying.
Even now the experience of seeing these eleven rock-hewn churches, each carved entirely out of a single block of granite with its roof at ground level is indescribable.
There are two main groups of churches.
To the north of the River Jordan are:
Biete Medhani Alem (House of the Saviour of the World)
Biete Mariam (House of Mary)
Biete Maskal (House of the Cross)
Biete Denagel (House of Virgins)
Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael).
To the south of the river are:
Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel)
Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercoreus)
Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos)
Biete Gabriel Raphael (House of Gabriel Raphael) and
Biete Lehem (House of Holy Bread).
The eleventh church, Biete Ghiorgis (House of St. George) is apart from the others but connected by a system of trenches.
Biete Medhani Alem with its five aisles is believed to be the largest known monolithic church in the world while Biete Ghiorgis is designed in the shape of a cross that appears like magic from its sunken depths.
The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela are preserved in their natural setting in a village which, though it has grown considerably through the rise of tourism and pilgrimages to these spectacular sites, still continues much the same as it has for centuries.
Farmers still herd their sheep through the town, country women still carry bundles of firewood and produce for sale on their heads and the focus of the community is on prayer and worship.
The sight of the congregation dressed in white scattered across the mountain top as the priests sing holy texts as part of the dawn ceremony is a wonder to behold and be part of.
If you would like to step back in time then come and join us on our tour of this region for further information or to book contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.