ATLAS OBSCURA

Bete Giyorgis of Lalibela - Lalibela, Ethiopia

Lalibela’s goal was to create a new Ethiopian Jerusalem, and he recreated many biblical scenes, such as the stable, out of carved rock. The Bete Giyorgis is by far the most spectacular of these churches. Carved out of the ground, and shaped from the inside out, it is one, unbroken piece of stone. Bete Giyorgis is connected to the other sunken stone churches through a series of elaborate tunnels.

There are two versions of the church’s history: one says that the church was built after Lalibela’s death (c. 1220) by his widow as a memorial to the “saint-king.” The other claims it was a promise king Lalibela had made to St. George, who had been upset Lalibela had not constructed a church dedicated to him.

The church is cut 40 feet down, its roof forming the shape of a Greek cross. Inside the church, there is a curtain that shields the Holy of Holies and a priest displaying books and paintings to visitors. In the shadow of one of the arms of the cruciform-shaped church is a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. Although an explorer was once allowed to open it, he found it empty. No one was able to tell him what happened to its contents.

For more—including how Lalibela himself was named for his birth amidst a swarm of bees!—keep reading Bete Giyorgis of Lalibela on Atlas Obscura…