The northwest cluster is the more architecturally cohesive of the two groups, and was most likely conceived as a whole, quite possibly by Emperor Lalibela. Coming from the ticket office, the first church you reach is Bet Medhane Alem, which stands almost 12m high and has a ground area of 800 square metres, making it the world’s largest rock-hewn monolith. The exterior is supported by thirty-odd square rock-hewn columns, giving it a classical appearance that has led some scholars to suggest it is a replica of the original fourth century church (on the site of the Maryam Tsion) at Aksum, while the airy cathedral-like interior has a devout, very tranquil atmosphere. An arched passage through the rock wall leads from here to a large subterranean courtyard dominated by Bet Maryam, which is particularly notable for its beautifully carved interior and densely painted ceiling. In the same courtyard is the smaller Bet Golgotha, the one church in Lalibela that women are prohibited from entering. King Lalibela is said to be buried in Bet Golgotha’s Selassie Chapel, the holiest place in Lalibela and off limits to all visitors.

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