It’s hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the history of Lalibela and its churches. Oral tradition suggests that the town, originally known as Debre (Mount) Roha, was founded during or before the eleventh century as the capital of the Zagwe dynasty, but what is beyond question is that its most celebrated ruler was Emperor Gebre Meskel Lalibela, after whom the site was renamed centuries later. According to legend, Lalibela was earmarked for great things as a child, when a holy swarm of bees settled on his body (his name reputedly derives from an archaic phrase meaning “the bees recognize his sovereignty”). Lalibela became emperor around 1180, following a protracted secession struggle, and soon after received a divine vision instructing him to re-create Jerusalem in stone at Debre Roha. Tradition has it that he fulfilled this vision personally, by excavating all of the town’s thirteen rock-hewn churches (along with several other similar edifices scattered around the rest of Ethiopia) during his forty-year reign, often with the assistance of angels.
In truth, the stylistic variation on display at Lalibela’s churches, not to mention the intensive labour required to chisel them out of solid rock, makes it unlikely the excavation could take place within the space of a few decades. Two different methods were used for excavation. Subterranean monoliths such as Bet Giyorgis and Medhane Alem were created by cutting a deep moat-like trench downward into the rock, leaving behind a freestanding block of rock into which the actual church would be chiselled – a method of excavation unique to Ethiopia. Other churches were carved into a vertical rock face, often exploiting existing caves or fissures.
Thus a more probable scenario is that the churches were excavated over several centuries, and that some started life as secular forts or palaces but were converted at a later date. What does seem likely, however, is that Emperor Lalibela was responsible for the unification of the complex as a whole, and also for excavating the most recent and refined churches. Whatever the truth, the churches of Lalibela were unquestionably in place by the late fifteenth century, when the Portuguese explorer Pêro da Covilhã became the first outsider to visit the site.