King Lalibela’s 13th Century Feat of Engineering Serves Ethiopians Now

Angels worked on them by night.

Audenegiste ‘Secret of Life’, 13th century

1. Engineering Feat

The Lalibela rock-hewn monasteries were an Ethiopian feat of engineering and water technology.

Unique Top-Down Construction

The Lalibela rock-hewn monasteries are unique because King Lalibela built them from the top down. They are the only structures in the world to have been constructed in this way. This is one reason why they are now on the UNESCO World Heritage list Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela. To view it,click here.

Deep in the Earth

King Lalibela and engineer-priests carved the monasteries by hand. They dug deep into solid granite rock. However, the building took them only 21 years. Help was at hand. People constructed the monasteries by day. Angels worked on them by night.

Ethiopians built them as a system of 11 monasteries. A tunnel network connected them all. This is passable today, but only with guides – it is very easy to get lost there. On the same site, there was a 12th monastery that is not connected to the others.

2. Ethiopian Built

Plans for the monasteries were in Ge’ez, the classical language of Ethiopia. This proves that Ethiopians designed them. It was an Ethiopian king and his engineers who gave the world these marvels.

Early in the 13th century AD, Priest-King Lalibela built the Lalibela rock-hewn monasteries. Some people refer to them as churches. However, they were Orit Yehuda (Ethiopian Jewish) places of worship and work.

3. King Lalibela’s Water Supply System

Eight hundred years after the monasteries were built, the original water supply system still works. King Lalibela built a waterfall into a canal. Today, this still supplies water to Lalibela village. However, in the 21st century nobody knows how it operates. One reason is that the plans were in Ge’ez and few speak and read it today.

4. Baptism or Temket

Many visitors to Lalibela have Temket or baptism. It is a little-known fact that, for thousands of years, Orit Yehuda people have been practising baptism. The temket font in the photograph is filled with holy water. Its green colour is from qetema rushes.

Lalibela Rock Hewn Monasteries interior view of Medhan Alem Monastery with worshippers
Bete Medhan Alem Monastery interior

5. The Lalibela Monasteries Serve Now

Today, the Lalibela Rock-Hewn Monasteries are frequently full of visitors. They are fully working. Monks treat the sick. Visitors are not all sightseers. Many are Ethiopians who continue to follow their ancient religion and worship at the monasteries.

King Lalibela’s feat of 13th century engineering serves Ethiopians now.

  • Lalibela in Lucy’s People: An Ethiopian Memoir: Chapter 12
  • To read about conservation needed now, click here.
  • Featured Image: Top of Bete Giyorgis Lalibela Viewed at Ground Level © Mesfin Tadesse, 2017
  • Photos:
  • Bete Giyorgis Monastery © Mesfin Tadesse, 2017
  • Bete Medhan Alem © Mesfin Tadesse, 2017
  • King Lalibela’s 13th-Century Waterfall © Mesfin Tadesse, 2017
  • Lalibela Rock-Hewn Monastery Baptism Water © Mesfin Tadesse, 2017
  • Worshippers Inside Bete Medhan Alem at Lalibela © Mesfin Tadesse, 2017

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