Lalibela Founds the Christian Capital of Ethiopia

Lalibela, the most illustrious of the Zagwe rulers who came to power in Ethiopia after the fall of the Aksumite kingdom, established his capital at the site that now carries his name and embarked on the construction of the famous rock-hewn churches that are wonders of the medieval world.

Summary of Event

The last two centuries of the first millennium saw the gradual decline of the Christian kingdom of Aksum Aksum (northern Ethiopia) caused by the expansion of Muslim power in the Red Sea region. Aksumite prosperity was mainly based on its political hegemony over both sides of the Red Sea and extensive participation in the eastern and Mediterranean trade. The growth of Arab power under Umayyad and ՙAbbāsid rulers challenged Aksum’s dominant position in the region. Cut off from its lucrative seaborne commercial networks, the Aksumite state entered into a period of economic stagnation and political disintegration. [kw]Lalibela Founds the Christian Capital of Ethiopia (c. 1181-1221)
[kw]Christian Capital of Ethiopia, Lalibela Founds the (c. 1181-1221)
[kw]Ethiopia, Lalibela Founds the Christian Capital of (c. 1181-1221)
Africa;c. 1181-1221: Lalibela Founds the Christian Capital of Ethiopia[2080]
Architecture;c. 1181-1221: Lalibela Founds the Christian Capital of Ethiopia[2080]
Government and politics;c. 1181-1221: Lalibela Founds the Christian Capital of Ethiopia[2080]
Dil Naՙad
Mara Tekle Haimanot
Naՙakuto Laՙab

In 1137, Dil Naՙad Dil Naՙad , the last Aksumite king, was overthrown by Mara Tekle Haimanot Mara Tekle Haimanot , an Agaw vassal prince from Lasta who founded a dynasty known in Ethiopian history as the Zagwe Zagwe Dynasty . The Zagwe rulers moved the seat of power to their home district in Bugna, in the province of Lasta. Assimilation to the Aksumite culture and the process of Christianization was so far advanced by then that the new rulers, who belonged to the Agaw ethnic group (distinct from the Semiticized Aksumites), continued the Aksumite legacy and reaffirmed the Ethiopianization of the state rather than depart from tradition. The new rulers incorporated more areas in the south to the Ethiopian state and reinvigorated Christianity by sponsoring the spread of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church among diverse groups of peoples in central and southern Ethiopia. Orthodox Church;Ethiopia

Among the most noteworthy achievements of the Zagwe period are the complex monolithic rock-hewn churches built by successive rulers. Architecture;Ethiopia Although the art of carving churches out of solid mass of rock is an old Aksumite technique, it reached an extraordinary level during this period. The first major project was undertaken by the priest-king Yimrehane-Kristos Yimrehane-Kristos , who commissioned the building of one of the most impressive and artfully decorated rock-hewn churches in the world. Some 12 miles (19 kilometers) from this church is a vast complex of eleven rock-cut churches that are described as the most incredible sights on the African continent. Most of these churches are attributed to King Lalibela.

Lalibela, the most famous of the Zagwe kings, inaugurated a period of imperial expansion and considerable literary and architectural revival. He carried out successful campaigns designed to consolidate imperial control over northern Ethiopia, including the highlands of what is now called Eritrea, and to subdue the still predominantly non-Christian regions farther south. Lalibela’s reign saw the revival of foreign trade, especially through the port of Zeila in the east. Lalibela also pursued an active foreign policy, including developing good relations with Saladin in order to ensure the continuity of relations between the Ethiopian Church and the Egyptian Coptic Church and to protect Ethiopian Christians in Jerusalem. Lalibela’s success in consolidating the Ethiopian state at home and his vigorous foreign policy appear to have provided the inspiration for the spread of the European myth of the legend of the Prester John Prester John (legendary) .

Lalibela is most remembered as the inspired genius who built the great complex of rock-hewn churches in Roha (now Lalibela) that, according to traditional accounts, were designed to replicate Jerusalem. The eleven edifices attributed to Lalibela are all sculpted inside and out from solid volcanic rock and are interconnected by a maze of long underground tunnels and passages. Each building is architecturally unique and sumptuously decorated with a variety of paintings. Some of the buildings have immense columns. The most impressive and the largest of this complex is the Bete Medhane Alem (the Church of Our Savior), which measures 10.5 feet in length, 7 feet in width, and 3.5 feet in height ( 33.5 meters by 23.5 meters by 11 meters). This rectangular edifice that resembles a Greek temple is surrounded by thirty-two external colonnades. The other fascinating structure is the Bete Giyorgis (Church of Saint George), which is built in the shape of a cross from a great block of rock.

These architectural wonders have fascinated many visitors throughout the ages. Francisco Alvarez, a Jesuit priest and a member of the Portuguese mission to Ethiopia who visited the site in the sixteenth century, wrote in The Prester John of the Indies that the likes of such buildings “cannot, as it appears to me, be found in the world.” He further wrote, “I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more.”

Ethiopian legend claims that Lalibela was miraculously flown to Jerusalem, where Christ appeared to him and instructed him to build a second Jerusalem in Ethiopia. Christianity;Ethiopia

Ethiopian Christians consider the site as the new Holy Land that was intended to replace Jerusalem, which was lost to the Muslims, as a pilgrimage center. The Gadla Lalibela (the hagiography of Lalibela) claims that visiting these churches is like seeing the face of Christ. Several landmarks in the area are given biblical names. The local stream that flows through the site is named the Jordan River, and the nearby mountain is called Mount Tabor. One of the eleven churches that houses the tomb of Lalibela is called Golgotha.

In spite of these accomplishments, the Zagwe hold over the Ethiopian Empire remained precarious. The Zagwe rulers were unable to remove the stigma that they were usurpers who had snatched power from the lawful rulers of the Aksumite line. Although they were the greatest patrons of the Ethiopian Church and produced three kings, including Lalibela, who were canonized as saints, the widespread perception that they were illegitimate persisted, especially in northern Ethiopia. This bias was later exploited skillfully by their rivals.

The main weakness of this dynasty, however, lay in its failure to institutionalize a smooth and effective system of succession. The Zagwe rulers seem to have regarded the state as a family property, and the death of a Zagwe king was followed by fierce scramble for power within the royal family.

The problem grew more acute after Lalibela’s reign, when succession was bitterly contested between his son Yitbarek Yitbarek and his nephew Naՙakuto Laՙab Naՙakuto Laՙab . This internal feud aided the anti-Zagwe movement centered in the Amhara region, a movement that was building momentum by the middle of the thirteenth century. In 1270, the last Zagwe ruler, Yitbarek, was overthrown by Yekuno Amlak Yikuno Amlak , a prince from the Amhara area who claimed descent from the old Aksumite line of rulers and established what is known as the Solomonid Dynasty Solomonid Dynasty .


King Lalibela and the other Zagwe rulers came to power at a crucial moment in Ethiopian history. By providing an alternative leadership in the south they ensured the survival of the Ethiopian state after the collapse of the old Aksumite political order. Zagwe rulers adopted the Aksumite political, literary, religious, and architectural traditions and spread them further to the south, thereby providing a common and enduring reference to the diverse communities that constituted the Ethiopian state.

Also, Lalibela’s great architectural monuments and the myth that developed around them continue to be revered by the followers of the Ethiopian Church and visitors to the region.

Further Reading

  • Alvarez, Francisco. The Prester John of the Indies. Translated by C. F. Beckingham and G. W. B. Huntingford. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1961. An interesting eyewitness account of a sixteenth century Portuguese traveler in Ethiopia.
  • Connery, William S. “The Second Zion—The Wonder of Ethiopia’s Lalibela.” World and I 16 (August, 2001). A concise article that outlines the historical background to the construction of the Lalibela churches and provides a short description of the monolithic complex.
  • Gerster, Georg. Churches in Rock: Early Christian Art in Ethiopia. New York: Praeger, 1970. A useful account of the tradition of building rock-hewn churches in Ethiopia. The book contains some of the best pictures of the Lalibela churches ever published.
  • Heldman, Marilyn. “Legends of Lalibela: The Development of an Ethiopian Pilgrimage Site.” Res 27 (Spring, 1995). A modern art historian’s view of the legends associated with the building of the Lalibela monolithic churches and their place in Ethiopian national myth.
  • Henze, Paul B. Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia. New York: Palgrave, 2000. A readable general work that is especially useful in tracing the history of the country’s expansion southward during medieval times under the leadership of a series of capable Solomonid rulers. It also includes interesting information on daily life, art, architecture, religion, culture, and customs.
  • Munro-Hay, Stuart. Ethiopia, the Unknown Land: A Cultural and Historical Guide. London: I. B. Tauris, 2002. A well-researched, comprehensive, and up-to-date description of the major historical landmarks in Ethiopia.
  • Sergew Hable Sellassie. Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Addis Ababa University, 1972. A survey of Ethiopian history from the earliest times to the medieval period based on extensive use of primary sources.
  • Taddesse Tamrat. Church and State in Ethiopia, 1270-1527. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1972. An authoritative work by one of the foremost historians of medieval Ethiopia. Contains useful information on the transition of power from the Zagwe to the new Solomonid Dynasty.