King Lalibela (ruled c. 1200-1250) was the most famous king of the short-lived Zagwe dynasty (dynasty of the Agaw) that came after the demise of the Aksum kingdom. The Zagwe period runs from about 1137 to 1270, and the Agaw are one of the oldest indigenous people of Ethiopia. They originally occupied a large part of northern Ethiopia, extending from Bogos in Eritrea to Agawmeder Gojjam. The Balaw people in Eritrea are descendants of the Agaw. The Agaw also lived in Lasta, the center of their Zagwe kingdom. Nowadays most Agaw people live in the Agawmeder region of northwestern Gojjam. The Agaw language is classified as Cushitic. The Agaw had converted to Christianity during the Aksumite kingdom.

Of all the tremendous cultural achievements of the Zagwe dynasty, the rock-hewn churches that bear Lalibela’s name stand out the most. The eleven churches carved out of rock made Lalibela’s name immortal. So famous is he in the history ofEthiopian Christianity that Lalibela was canonized by the Ethiopian Church.

Remarkable as the achievements of Lalibela were, there is hardly any historical record detailing his life or reign. Partly due to the notion that the Zagwe were usurpers of power from the legitimate “Solomonid dynasty,” this period of Ethiopian history is a neglected field of inquiry. The life and times of King Lalibela are shrouded in mystery, while the churches he built are given miraculous explanations, such as the assertion that the rock-hewn churches at Lalibela were built by angels. Whatever the hagiographical tradition says, Lalibela built in all eleven rock-hewn churches of which ten were built in a group of two, one consisting of six, and another of four churches. The eleventh one was built separately, for unknown reasons. This church attempts to duplicate Jerusalem; the small stream that runs through the churches is called Yordanos, after the River Jordan in Jerusalem.

King Lalibela strengthened the foundations of Ethiopian Christianity. The Zagwe kings before and after him maintained strong relations with the outside Christian world, including the age-old relations with the Egyptian Church. Interestingly, the famous twelfth-century Egyptian ruler Salah al-Din, who expelled Europeans from Jerusalem, gave Ethiopians a number of churches in the Holy Land, which in turn increased the number of Ethiopian pilgrims to Jerusalem. The Zagwe kings expanded the frontiers of the Christian kingdom.

By the time of King Lalibela, Christianity in Ethiopia had taken firm roots. Eight centuries earlier. King Ezana of Aksum had converted to Christianity. From that time onward, biblical and other ecclesiastical works were translated into Ge’ez, the Aksumite script. The fundamental tenets of Ethiopian Christianity derive mainly from Coptic Egypt. Among the uniquelyEthiopian traits of Christianity is the particularly strong presence of Old Testament—based ritual, which helps give EthiopianChristianity its syncretic character.

Judaic elements in Ethiopian Christianity include the observance of the Sabbath on Saturday as well as Sunday. Christian Ethiopians follow the dietary laws laid down in Leviticus, in the Old Testament, by avoiding pork and other “unclean” foods. Following Judaic law, male babies are circumcised eight days after birth, while they are baptized forty days after birth. The structure of churches is similar to Jewish temples, while the dance of the dabtara with their drums and sistrum resembles the dance of Levites in front of the Ark.

Of all the Judaic elements, the most profound in distinguishing Ethiopian Christianity is reverence for the Ark of the Covenant, the tabot. Christian Ethiopia believes that the original Ark of the Covenant is in Ethiopia, kept in the safety of Aksum Tseyon (Zion) Church. As custodians of the Ark, Ethiopians believe that they have replaced Jews as God’s chosen people. Some historians argue that this belief was introduced and popularized during Lalibela’s reign.

The allegation that the Zagwe were usurpers from the “legitimate” Solomonid dynasty led to many rebellions by those intent upon returning power to the Solomonid rulers. The Zagwe kings patronized Dabra Libanos monastery in Eritrea, while neglecting traditional church centers like Aksum and Dabra Damo. This created resentment against the Zagwe. Amhara was one of the regions under Zagwe rule, and it was the Amhara chieftain Yekuno-Amlak who overthrew the Zagwe kingdom andbrought about the so-called Solomonid restoration in 1270. Throughout the Aksumite, Zagwe, and Solomonid periods, Christian Ethiopia’s fundamental social structure, religious life, and patterns of external relations remained essentially unchanged.




TIBEBU, T. and Tibebu, T. (2004). Lalibela and ethiopian christianity. In K. Shillington (Ed.), Encyclopedia of African history. London, United Kingdom: Routledge. Retrieved from