St. Lalibela was an Ethiopian monarch and church builder. The second to last king of the Zagwe dynasty, he was the most renowned, especially for the 11 rock-hewn churches built in his capital. These edifices are among the major medieval monuments of Africa. Lalibela provides a striking example of the union of church and state in Ethiopia and is revered as a saint in the Ethiopian Church.
Lalibela, meaning “bees obey him,” was a birth-name noting that at his birth a swarm of bees alighted on him without harming him. As a youth, Lalibela claimed to have visions and spent some time as a hermit. In 1180 he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On return, Lalibela only reluctantly took the throne from his half-brother Harba with support from the clergy, who opposed Harba’s contacts with the papacy. He took the name Gabra Masqal, Servant of the Cross, and began his reign with a long fast.
Lalibela attempted a Christian policy of charity and peace, which was largely successful. He secured his borders with new monasteries and developed good relations with the Sultan Saladin, thus easing pressures on the Christians of Egypt and protecting the Ethiopians in Jerusalem. His greatest feat, however, was creating the amazing network of churches, courtyards, and water systems in his capital. Since the entire complex is carved from natural rock below ground level, it has survived intact. Lalibela’s tomb is also located there.
Norbert C. Brockman
Dictionary of African Biography. Algonac, MI, and New York: Reference Publications, vol. 1, 1977; vol. 2, 1979.
Lipschutz, Mark, and R. Kent Rasmussen. Dictionary of African Historical Biography. 2nd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from An African Biographical Dictionary, copyright © 1994, edited by Norbert C. Brockman, Santa Barbara, California. All rights reserved.