Until the mid-1960s, the churches were almost unknown outside Tigray itself and still very little is known about their real history, as opposed to their oral histories. Their remote and precarious positions have led scholars to think they were built in such inaccessible places in order to remain hidden from invading Muslim armies.

While local tradition attributes most of the churches to 4th-century Aksumite kings Abreha and Atsbeha, as well as to 6th-century rulers, most historians confidently date them between the 9th and 15th centuries. Thus the early churches represent an artistic, cultural and technical link between Aksum and Lalibela.