King Lalibela's goal was to create a New Jerusalem for those who could not make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land (and to create a sacred city to rival powerful Axum, with its Ark of the Covenant). According to some reports, he had been to the Holy Land himself and was inspired by what he saw. But the king made no attempt to copy the churches of the Holy Land; in fact, Lalibela's sacred architecture could not be more unique. The churches of Lalibela were not constructed — they were excavated. Each church was created by first carving out a wide trench on all four sides of the rock, then painstakingly chiseling out the interior. The largest church is 40 feet high, and the labor required to complete such a task with only hammers and chisels is astounding.
Popular legend has it that angels came every night to pick up where the workmen had left off. One of the churches, Bet Maryam, contains a stone pillar on which King Lalibela wrote the secrets of the buildings' construction. It is covered with old cloths and only the priests may look on it.
King Lalibela's project for gaining the church's favor had two unexpected results: the creation of a holy place of unparalleled beauty and the king's conversion to a religious life. After laboring for 20 years, he abdicated his throne to become a hermit, living in a cave and eating only roots and vegetables. To this day, Ethiopian Christians regard King Lalibela as one of their greatest saints.
The churches have been in continuous use since they were built in the 12th century. The first Europeans to see these extraordinary holy sites were Portugese explorers in the 1520s, one of whom noted in his journal that the sights were so fantastic, he expected readers of his descriptions would accuse him of lying. ( Fransico Alvarez ). We prepared you hiking plan to the mountains surrounding Lalibela.