Lalibela, initially known as Roha, was the Zagwe dynasty’s capital in the 12th and 13th centuries. In a rare consensus, scholars and local tradition both claim that the churches date from around the time of King Lalibela (r 1181–1221), but the consensus is thrown out the window for everything else.
True believers say all work was completed in 23 years and this was possible because every night the earthly workforce was replaced by a celestial one. However, regardless of angelic intervention, the buildings are so different from each other in style, artisanship and state of preservation that they surely span a far longer period than even Lalibela’s reign. It’s also possible that not all were originally churches.
In many of Lalibela's churches, the exceptional masonry skills that had been refined during the days of Aksum were deployed here, and indeed most of the churches show clear Aksumite characteristics, in particular in the doors and windows.
One of the many local legends about the site’s origin states that the king wanted to make a new Jerusalem so pilgrims didn’t have to make the long, dangerous journey to the real one. Another claims that Lalibela was poisoned by his brother (or half-brother, or half-sister) and while in a coma he went on a journey to heaven where God commanded him to return to Ethiopia and re-create the holy city of Jerusalem there. A multitude of sites, from Calvary to the Jordan River, have taken names from the Holy Land and local tradition also has decided that the northwestern group represents the real Jerusalem, while the southeastern group is the ‘heavenly’ Jerusalem.