Bet Maryam, rock-cut church in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

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Bet Maryam

Top choice in Lalibela

Connected to Bet Medhane Alem by a tunnel is a large courtyard containing three churches. The first, Bet Maryam, is small, yet designed and decorated to an exceptionally high standard. It’s also the only church with porches extending off it. Dedicated to the Virgin (who’s particularly venerated in Ethiopia), this is the most popular church among pilgrims. Some believe it may have been the first built in Lalibela.

On its eastern wall you’ll see two sets of three windows. The upper set is thought to represent the Holy Trinity, while the lower three, set below a small cross-shaped window, are believed to represent the crucifixion of Jesus and the two sinners. The lower right window has a small opening above it, a signal that this sinner was accepted to heaven after repenting his sins and asking for Jesus’ help. The lower left window, which represents the criminal who went to hell, has the small opening below it.

Above the western porch and squeezed beneath the roof is a rare and beautifully carved bas-relief of St George fighting the dragon.

Inside, the ceilings and upper walls are painted with very early frescoes, and the columns, capital and arches are covered in beautifully carved details, including a curious two-headed eagle and two fighting bulls, one white, one black (thought to represent good and evil). At the eastern end of the tall nave, surrounded by seven galleries, is a holy column with inscriptions in Ge’ez, Hebrew and Greek kept permanently wrapped in cloth.

Christmas celebrations here on 7 January are a wonderful thing to behold.

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1. Bet Meskel

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Carved into the courtyard’s northern wall at Bet Maryam is the tiny semi-chapel of Bet Meskel. Four pillars divide the gallery into two aisles spanned by…

2. Bet Danaghel

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To the south of the Bet Maryam courtyard is the pleasingly primitive and grotto-like chapel of Bet Danaghel (House of the Virgins), said to have been…

3. Bet Golgotha & Bet Mikael

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A trench at the southern end of the Bet Maryam courtyard connects it to the twin churches of Bet Golgotha and Bet Mikael (also known as Bet Debre Sina)…

4. Bet Medhane Alem

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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…

5. Tomb of Adam

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The symbolic Tomb of Adam is a giant, hollowed-out block of stone next to Bet Uraiel.

6. Bet Uraiel

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In the trench fronting the western facade of Bet Golgotha, past the symbolic Tomb of Adam (a giant, hollowed-out block of stone), Bet Uraiel opened as a…

7. Museum

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Downstairs at the ticket office, the uninspired museum displays the usual church items. It's an obligatory stop, but any time spent here is merely…

8. Bet Gabriel-Rufael

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Its entrance flanked by a sloping sliver of rock known as the ‘Way to Heaven’, this imposing twin-church marks the main entrance to the southeastern group…