Bet Medhane Alem

Top choice church in Lalibela

Image by Jane Sweeney Getty Images

Resembling a massive Greek temple more than a traditional Ethiopian church, Bet Medhane Alem is impressive for its size and majesty. Said to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world, it measures 33.5m by 23.5m and is more than 11.5m high. Some scholars have suggested it may have been a copy in rock of the original St Mary of Zion church in Aksum.

The building is surrounded by 34 large, rectangular columns (many are replicas of the originals). The three jointed at each corner are thought to represent the Holy Trinity. The interior consists of a barrel-vaulted nave and four aisles with 38 columns supporting the gabled roof. The three empty graves in one corner are said to have been prepared symbolically for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On Sundays worshipers come hoping to be blessed or healed by the famous 7kg gold Lalibela Cross.


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