After the decline of the Axumite empire, lamenting their lost grandeur, Ethiopia’s rulers retreated with their Christian subjects to the lofty escarpment of the central uplands. There, protected by mountain battlements more formidable than anything the hand of man could fashion, they were able to repel an increasingly expansionist and militant Islam trapping and confusing their enemies in the precipitous maze of valleys that intersects the high plateau
Inevitably, a fortress mentality took root: an intense suspicion of the motives of strangers, a hatred of intrusion and interference, protective secrecy. During this period roughly from the seventh to the sixteenth centuries AD – the Ethiopians, encompassed by the enemies of their religion, were described by the British historian Edward Gibbon as having slept for near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten. It is true, moreover, that in holding back those who sought to destroy their faith, the highlanders also effectively cut themselves off from the evolving mainstream of Christian culture. This is the only sense, however, in which they slept. Their unique, idiosyncratic civilization was otherwise very much awake – a singular and spirited affirmation of the creative power of the human intellect.
Lalibela, previously known as Roha, is named after the king. The word itself, which translates to mean the bees, recognizes his sovereignty and the people of the region still recount the legend that explains why. Lalibela was born in Roha in the second half of the twelfth century, the youngest son of the royal line of the Zagwe dynasty, which then ruled over much of northern Ethiopia. Despite several elder brothers he was destined for greatness from his earliest days. Not long after his birth, his mother found a swarm of bees around his crib and recalled an old belief that the animal world foretold important futures. She cried out: -The bees know that this child will become king.
The prominent rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are eleven in number and situated in three groups separated by the seasonal river Jordan. Churches of the first group are believed to have been built first and are usually visited first by many of the tourists. They are Bete Medhane-Alem, Bete Mariam, Bete Mesekel, Bete Denagel, Bete Golgotha and Bete Debre Sina. Churches of the second group are situated south of the Jordan River and comprise Bete Gabriel, Bete Amanuel, Bete Merkorios, and Bete Abba Libanos. In the third group, there is only one isolated church i.e Bete Giorgis. It is located a few minutes walk to the south west of both the first and second group of churches