Wood for sale on the street heading to the ticket office:
The church complex was listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. Our guide, Eshutu, told us that there were four imperial kings who expanded Christianity during the 11th century into Lalibela, which was formerly known as Adefa. The most venerated ruler associated with Adefa was Gebre Meskel Lalibela, the fifth Zagwe emperor, who came to power in the early 1180s and reigned for 40 years.
After studying to be a priest, Lalibela and many others made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. After his experiences there, he returned to Adefa where he was responsible, Eshutu stated, for the excavation of the rock-hewn churches. Lalibela is known today as the New Jerusalem, Eshutu said, and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims come to Lalibela every January 7th, the birthday of King Lalibela. People stay in tents or in the compound around the churches.
The 13 churches are divided into 3 types: 7 represent Earthly Jerusalem, 5 others represent Heavenly Jerusalem and one symbolizes Noah's Ark. It took 23 years to build all 13 churches, all of which were built from the top down! That was to show where the message is coming from. i.e. from on high, and also that they represent where Jesus was buried in Golgotha in Israel, according to Eshutu. Some have theorized that the oldest excavations might pre-date King Lalibela by many centuries and may even have started life in pre-Christian times as pagan shrines.
It's hard to describe the awesome feeling we had when we climbed the hill and came across this massive church that was standing about 40 feet high below us. Knowing that it and the other churches were built 800 years ago only with chisels and no other supporting materials was almost unbelievable.