Motherland Treasure: Ethiopia’s “New Jerusalem”

Bete Giyorgis

In a small town in the hills of Ethiopia, the natives have a story: Once upon a time, there was an infant who was destined to be a king. As he was born, a swarm of bees surrounded him. So his mother named him Lalibela, which means “the bees recognize his sovereignty.” When the boy grew up, he had a vision in which God told him to build a New Jerusalem. Later on, the man became King of Ethiopia, and angels came and helped him build a New Jerusalem out of rock, just as the vision foretold.


That may sound like the stuff of legend, but King Lalibela and his New Jerusalem are quite real. King Lalibela reigned over Ethiopia in the 12th century. During his reign, he built 11 cross-shaped churches out of rock in the city now called Lalibela, Ethiopia. Each church is a monolith. It is carved out of a single rock, with no seams.

One of the churches, Bete Methane Alem, is thought to be the largest monolithic church in the world. Inside, there is an equally fascinating treasure: the Lalibela cross. Other churches are thought to have held practical functions, such as a chapel (Bete Amanuel), a prison (Bete Merkurios), and a royal palace (Bete Gabriel-Rufael). There is also Bete Maryam, which is said to be the first built; and Bete Abba Libranos, possibly the last built, as it was believed to be commissioned by King Lalibela’s wife as a memorial to him. King Lalibela himself is thought to be entombed in another of the churches, Bete Golgotha. Although all of the churches are still standing, the most well preserved, and probably the most photographed, is Bete Giyorgis.

Lalibela Cross

King Lalibela included other Christian symbols in his New Jerusalem as well. There is a stable which represents the manger that Christ was born in, a cross that represents the baptism of Jesus, and a hill overlooking the city that Lalibela called the Mount of Olives.

Each year, Lalibela is home to a multi-day Christmas festival. On the Ethiopian calendar, that date is January 7. Over 60,000 people make a pilgrimage to Lalibela for the celebration. There are open-air sermons during the day and a ceremony of lights at midnight on the 7th to celebrate the day of Christ’s birth. The people believe that the soil around Lalibela has healing properties, so they often take some home for loved ones who couldn’t make the trek. Lalibela is featured as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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