King Harbay II

Since Yemrehanna Kristos did not have any children the famous King Lalibela older brother, Harbāy II (reigned 1124 – 1164 A.D) became his successor. Both Harbay II and Lalibela were believed to be the descendants of Jan Seyoum I(ruled 1067 -1084 A.D), who was the grandson of Mera Teklehaimanot (ruled 919 – 932 A.D).

Harbāy II also known for his regnal name as King Gebre Mariam has been called Kendu in the Arab world and the European called him Synod. He got both nicknames because he was once tried to create his own independent Synods. He was also known to foreigners as the legendary Prester John, the name believed to be given to him from the Ethiopian name Janhoy, meaning Emperor. Harbay was an unconfirmed priest at the same time a king. He ruled Roha, the then capital of Ethiopia during Christianity greatest challenges since its manifestation of the war against Islam to control Jerusalem. The war was led by the Ottoman Turks from the end of the 12th century to the beginning of the 14th century. It is believed that the European rulers during that period sent a letter to request help from the legendary Christian King, Harbāy.

At the time of Harbāy II reign pope Gabriel II was the pope of Alexandria 1138 – 1153 A.D.  and father Mikā’ēl was the metropolitan of Ethiopia. In the meantime, Harbāy was not satisfied by metropolitan performance, and he knew either language barrier or his age, or both play a major role in the lack of his achievement. Considering the number of people who reside in the country, Harbāy knew it is imperative to lead the country with an ambitious plan, which was not only expanding Chritntity throughout the Ethiopian highlands but also prevent the ever-expanding Islam. Harbāy assembled the priests, monks, and other church scholars and some government officials of the time to discuss the appointment of the first-ever seven Ethiopian metropolitans using the rules and regulations set by The First Council of Nicaea in 318 A.D

At the end of the meeting, Harbāy requested metropolitan Mikā’ēl I for the appointment of the seven Ethiopian monks to metropolitan position, but metropolitan insisted he didn’t have the power to appoint a single metropolitan let alone seven. Then, the Ethiopian ruler requested pope Gabriel, using the current metropolitan Mikā’ēl I as an intermediary, that more metropolitan be named by the patriarch in Ethiopia. However, Pope Gabrial II didn’t want to hear any of that saying,  the Ethiopians could then name metropolitans thus bypassing the patriarchate of Alexandria. Patriarchate of Alexandria even interprets this event as an attempt by Harbāy to separate himself from the Alexandrian Church.

Although the king was outraged and frustrated upon receiving the rejection letter from the of Alexandria, he was not deterred. Before he made his own call, he sent another letter, this time he was requested only for one metropolitan, who could assist the old metropolitan Mikā’ēl I. However, the response once again not any different from the first one. Soon after the conflict between the pope and the king went to the point where the king sent metropolitan Mikā’ēl to prison. Even though the reason might be related to the rejection of the letters, some people believed the metropolitan may cross the line by saying, the throne belongs to the Solomonic Dynasty who was governing Shewa regional state at the time, not King Herbay. 

At the time of the conflict between those two, either by coincidence or act of God major epidemic disease hit the country and claim the life many. Soon after the rumor started to spread throughout the country saying, his disobedience and conflict with the Pope caused all these devastations. Although he was canonized by the church as a saint, to this date not only the people of Lasta referred to him as ኃጢያተኛው ንጉስ ‘The sinful king’, but also the 18th of April(ሚያዝያ 10) of every year a priest of Lalibela read a passage from the chronicle of Lalibela, which celebrate and praise Pope Gabrial II and criticize and ridicule the king Harbāy. Harbay was the first and the only king who tried to appoint an Ethiopian Patriarchate till 1958. As a result of that different Ethiopian writers and poets, and religious scholars wrote many short poems which usually has double meanings.

ሰፌድና ወንፊት እያለ በእጃችን; የተነፋ ዱቄት ምነው መዋሳችን::

With a thumb and a Flour mill separator in hand, why would we borrow (worthless) flour?

በመርከብ ተሂዶ ምንድን ነው ቅልዉጡ; ግብጾች ለሀበሻ ደግሰው ላይሰጡ::

Why going by ship as a whitelist guest, the Egyptians may not give invitations (gentleman) for Habesha

The rejection of Harbay II was now coming to fruition from all sides including the church and his own family with the exception of his older sister, who once tried to poison the next Ethiopian King, Lalibela.

Lalibela’s unlikely ascent to the throne

As previously pointed out, both Harbay II and Lalibela were the descendants of Jan Seiyoum. In addition to that, the land grants preserved in the Gospel of Dabra Libānos, King Lalibela presents himself as the descendant of Jan Seiyum and introduces the name of Asseda (Anbasa Wedem) and Morara(reigned 1052 – 1067 A.D) into his genealogy, making Jān Sieyoum his great grandfather, and Morara as
grandfather or at least on the same genealogical level as his grandfather.

This most famous member of the Zagwe dynasty also named King Gebre Mesqel was born in Roha, the Zagwe capital. He was chosen as a leader in a unique way, following his birth, according to legend angels descended in the form of bees and gathered around him. Rather than stinging Lalibela, the bees created a protective shield and thus he was believed to possess divine nature and character. He was named Lalibela, which means “bees obey him.” in Agew language. Not surprisingly, this did not make him popular with other members of his family.

The life of the young man, who went down in history as the revivaler of Christianity was full of dangers. He could not even trust his half-sister who made a clear attempt to poison him. Luckily Lalibela had a servant boy in the rank of deacon, whose duty was to taste his master’s food and drink. He drank from the goblet with poison and died on the spot as well as a dog that licked his vomit. After having mourned his servant and the dog, the future King made up his mind to share their fate and finished the drink. However, by the Divine providence, he did survive and became privy of the mysteries of Heaven and Earth.

Being persecuted by his brother, Lalibela ran away into the desert. While the young man was on exile, he had visions of Jerusalem and spent some time as a hermit. In 1158 A.D, he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which was then in the hands of the Crusaders and it’s called the kingdom of Jerusalem. The Kingdom was established in the Southern Levant by Godfrey of Bouillon in 1099 after the First Crusade. The kingdom lasted nearly two hundred years, from 1099 until 1291. As mentioned previously, the Ethiopian clergies were unhappy with Lalibela’s half-brother Harbay due to his diplomatic raw with the papacy of Alexandria. Evidently, they feared Roman interference into their church’s affairs. 

When Lalibela returned from his pilgrimage in 1159 A.D, his noble origin, especially his rights to the Ethiopian throne were noticed by members of a rich family who lived locally. They decided to marry him to their daughter Mäsqäl Kəbra. While the newlyweds stayed in the house of the girl’s father, the “plasterers, cleaners and sweepers” (ምሩጋነ፡ ወኵስቱራነ፡ ወዕድዋነ።), who were renovating and refurbishing their abode; By the instigation of rumors, the news of Lalibela and his whereabouts had spread and reached the King’s ears. However, the clergy already rejected Harbāy as a king and urged Lalibela to take the throne from his brother. Soon after, Harby is said to have renounced his throne and abandoned power in favor of his younger brother, Lālibela(reigned 1164 -1204 A.d).

አነ፡ሐፃኒ፡ ላሊባላ፡ ወስመ፡ መንግሥትየ፡ ገብረ፡ መስቀል፡ (…) ወልደ፡ ሞራራ፡ ወልደ፡ ዛንሥዩም፡ ወልደ፡ ኣስዳ፡  I, the hadani Lalibala, whose ruling name is Gabra Masqal (…) son of Morārā, son of Jan seiyum, son of Assedā

Lalibela took the name Gebre Mesqel (Servant of the Cross) and began his reign with an extended fast. He attempted to rule as a Christian monarch, emphasizing peace and charity. He worked to secure his borders and to maintain good relations with Saladin, the premier leader in the Muslim world. He wanted to protect Ethiopian Christians in Muslim territories, and his positive relations with Saladin helped secure their safety.

The detailed description of Lalibela’s enthronement lists various stages of this ceremony called “kingdom wedding” (መርዓ፡ መንግሥት።). He was tonsured, elevated to the throne, received the new Royal Name, however, he was strictly speaking not crowned. To stress, no mention of the crown at all can be found in the text with regard to this occasion.

ወነሥአ፡ ንጉሥ፡ መላጼ፡ በእዴሁ፡ ወቀረፀ፡ ሥዕርቶ፡ ለላሊበላ፡ ወአንበሮ፡ ዲበ፡ መንግሥት፡  “And the king took a razor in his hand and shaved his hair and set him on the throne”.

ወሰመዮ፡ እኁሁ፡ ስመ፡ መንግሥቱ፡ ገብረ፡ መስቀል፡   “And his brother gave him the name of his royalty Gabra Masqal

The Vision

Lalibela, who have seen Jerusalem in a vision and also in person decided he needed to recreate the city of Jerusalem in his capital Roha in order to response the capture of old Jerusalem. King Lalibela immediately set out making a plan to build the new Jerusalem. He was determined the town of Roha become a city worthy of the name Jerusalem to stand the test of time. He began by renaming aspects of the town to reflect biblical names such as the river which run through the town became river Jordan. Most importantly, however, Lalibela commissioned the building of a network of rock-hewn churches connected by an intricate system of tunnels that were intended to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem.

Further associations with Jerusalem were stressed: a church was dedicated to Golgotha, signifying the Crucifixion, and within it, Lalibela himself was buried. Directly in front of this structure rises a curious monolithic cube which is popularly called the Tomb of Adam. From the Bible, we know that Golgotha was “the place of the skull,” which in the mind of Christians soon became associated with the skull of Adam. Frequently in Byzantine representations of the Crucifixion, we find, in a cave-like recess directly underneath the cross, a skull, and some bones. The sacrificial blood of the Saviour was supposed to have washed away the sin of the first man. A theological culmination was reached in the Church of the Redeemer of the World, Medhane Alem. The complex was completed by a structure which stands apart from the others, dedicated to the warrior from Asia Minor, patron saint of Ethiopia, St. George.


The Zagewe Architecture

The physical construction of the colossal complex of monolithic churches cannot be explained to be possible in the society predominantly based on the natural economy. However, one can find an explanation in the then history of the Coptic Church. At the end of the time of Crusaders its members were severely persecuted by Muslim authorities, so that didn’t possess any means to construct new churches on the territories controlled by Muslims, but still could to invest into the building churches elsewhere. This suggestion is textually supported by Lalibäla’s appeal to the workers who constructed the churches. The King-Saint suggested they should ask to be paid for their efforts (ዓስበክሙ፡) as much as they would like. And indeed, he was able to pay their wages regularly from the day they began the construction until they completed their work. An act of obvious generosity could only take place if the king would have had at his full disposal money provided by very wealthy donors and benefactors.

The Lalibäla Rock hewn churches share a fundamental characteristic of being built in caves: flagstone flooring. These structures are never built directly on the cave floor, because of the unevenness of the natural stone and of the tendency for water to collect in the nither areas. Consequently, the architect’s first consideration was the construction of a firm foundation upon which the church could be built. This is immediately apparent today in the level cave interior around the churches in question.


There are a total of eleven rock-hewn churches in Roha/Lalibela. These are all monolithic churches, meaning that they are carved from a single rock rather than built of stone masonry. The craftsmen carved a wide trench in the bedrock around the four sides of the churches and then went to work with hammers and chisels to carve out the church building itself, including doors, windows, moldings, crosses, etc. The roofs are level with the ground, and the entrances are reached by staircases down to the level of the excavated courtyard.

The names of the churches are as follows; Bete Medhane Alem (House of the Savior of the World), Beta Maryam (House of Mary), Dabra Sinai (Mount Sinai), Golgotha, Beta Masqal (House of the Cross), and Beta Danagel (House of the Virgins) as belonging to the first group, all with the exception of Beta Maryam being small chapels. Adjoining them were two other structures, Beta Gabriel (House of Gabriel and Rafael) and Beta Abba Matte, united with the same wall. To these another group was joined, comprising Beta Merqorewos (House of Mercurios) and Beta Amanuel (House of Emmanuel). Finally, Beta Giyorgis (house of Gyiorgise), the isolated church of St. Geiorgis.

The systematic design of these churches cannot be understood if they are taken as separate units. All of them were erected in the vicinity of the river and their dedication had a clear theological meaning: the oldest church among them was dedicated to Mary, who for the Byzantines was the God-Bearer (Theotokos), and for the Monophysites was the vehicle of incarnation. The structures which surround it are of lesser theological significance and ought to be understood as additional chapels. The structure which ties theologically with that of the Mary is dedicated to Amanuel (Emmanuel), which means “God with Us.” This is a dedication to one of the aspects of Christ as the Incarnate Word. In Byzantine iconography, Christ Emmanuel is always represented as a child. This theological application to the sanctuary is carried further: the structures near the entrances or directly in front of the churches are dedicated to the archangels Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael, considered to be “bodyless” heavenly militia. They guard the sanctuaries just as they do in Hagia Sophia, where we find their mosaic images in the lunette above the royal portal and on the vault of the bema. Although a local saint, the much venerated Abba Libanos was not forgotten, and a very handsome church was dedicated to him, which was built by Lalibela’s widow in his honor.

Each church is unique, though they follow the design of Axumite churches. The northern group includes the largest monolithic church in the world, Bete Medhane Alem (House of the Savior of the World). This church is believed to be a copy of the Cathedral of St. Mary of Mt. Zion in Axum, where the Ethiopian church believes the biblical Ark of the Covenant is housed.

Bete Medhane Alem

Bete Medhane Alem (House of the Savior of the World) has three bays, 31 a sanctuary and two aisles flanking a central nave. Height is added under a saddle-back roof over the nave,32 and a cupola over the sanctuary. The aisle ceilings are flat. The church measures 8.75 m long, 6.4 m wide and 5.2 m high. It is belittled by the enormous cave in which it resides, a space measuring approximately 57.36 m deep, 29.6 m wide and 14.33 m high. The church could have been built bigger and higher than Yemaranhe Kristos and had ample room for a gallery, but by this time, staircases and galleries, like the west end rooms, were a thing of the past.

Bete Medhane Alem is linked by tunnels and walkways to Bete Maryam (House of St. Mary), which may the oldest of the churches. A line of geometrically carved windows in the east wall of Bete Maryam illuminates the church’s copy of the Ark of the Covenant. The church also includes a number of painted decorations. Also in the northern group is Bete Golgotha, which includes life-size carvings of saints and the tomb of Emperor Lalibela. The Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam complete the northern set of churches.

Bete Mariam

Bete Mariam (the House of Mary) is a small three-nave basilica, its aisles separated from the naves by five rectangular piers on each side, with two more in the sanctuary (15 x 11 meters). The diminutive galleries surmount the aisles, but the nave does not project in height above them at the roof level. This simple basilica plan is enriched by three low porches which project to the south, west, and north. Nine supports, free ward a great elaboration of the interior reminds one not of contemporary structures elsewhere in the Eastern Christian world, but of the early Christian basilicas which were decorated with carved and painted stuccoes. The unassuming exterior of the Church of Mary suggests primitive efforts of a newly assembled crew of stone cutters.

Beta Amanuel

To the northeast of the Beta Mariam, there is a rectangular water basin carved into living rock, with a raised rim and several steps lead ing into it. Undoubtedly this served as a baptismal font where the ritual was carried out by immersion. To the southeast of the Church of Mary, stands the sanctuary of Emmanuel. Once again we find here a basilica structure, but very different in every respect from Mary’s sanctuary (18 x 12 x 11 meters). According to the Royal Chronicles, it is several churches younger, although still built during King Lalibela’s lifetime.

Beta Amanuel demonstrates not only a different source of inspiration but definite progress in the skill and artistic sophistication of its carvers. It is elevated from the ground by a four-step stylobate; it rises three stories high, with its vertical element underlined by prominent pilasters on all four façades. This also adds an element of strength at the corners. Its roof is sloping and has been rain-damaged along with the upper story of the church. Exterior walls are carved in imitation of alternate layers of exposed beams and dried mud. This technique probably came to Lalibela from Axum, but in its origin, it is tied to Arabia Felix. The beam is broader and the projecting part, while narrower, was at one time the mud layer. This horizontal, even rhythm is interrupted by the cornices, the second story being especially prominent. Western, northern, and southern doors give access to the church, and all three, together with the windows of the lower and upper zones, are framed by “monkey heads.” All the perforations of the lower windows are in the form of crosses, while the middle zone openings are arched.

Bete Georgies

Bete Georgis as the last church erected by King Lalibela. This sanctuary stands alone within its own enclosure, the walls of which rise to a height of 12 meters. Possibly because of its isolated position, this is among the most memorable structures in Lalibela. There is nothing to distract as one concentrates on its rust-colored walls of sandstone, their patina formed by rains and lichen. The building is a free-standing Greek cross, surging upward from a tall base (22×23 meters). The influence of Arabic architecture is to be seen in the pointed arch and in the fleuron surmounting it. The flat roof of Beta Gheorgis picks up the cross theme and uses it both symbolically and functionally. The roof, a cross within a cross, provides channels for shedding water, while water spouts project outward just below the upper cornice. The interior of this church is much simpler than the others, but it shows such precision of carving that one has the feeling that not only were skilled artists at work here but perhaps also there is already a touch of academism.

The central part of the cross, strengthened by monumental piers from which arches rise, has a shallow vault, while above the eastern arm of the sanctuary there is a webbed dome, a feature well known in Byzantine architecture. The free cross plan was also well-chosen with the specific knowledge of early Christian tradition, which often used this plan for the churches – martyria. Thus we are made to understand that the Ethiopians considered this church not only a dedicatory structure but also a true martyrium of the land’s patron, St. George.

As if the churches themselves were not impressive enough, Lalibela also built wells at many of the churches fed by artesian springs that bring water up to the ridge on which the city is built. This feat of engineering makes Hezikiah’s tunnel in old Jerusalem look like child’s play in comparison. The monolithic churches at Roha/Lalibela are so amazing that a variety of legends have grown up around them. One popular legend says that angels worked on them at night when the workers went home. Bete Maryam contains a pillar on which it is said Lalibela carved the secrets of the churches’ construction, though the pillar is kept covered and so no one really knows what is on it except perhaps the monks at the church. Some people have suggested that the Knights Templar were involved in their construction, but there is no evidence that they were and the Ethiopian designs of the buildings effectively refute that claim. Records do indicate that foreign workers were involved in their construction, but given the artistic work, they were most likely Copts from Egypt.

Lalibela’s reign after he began building the churches was not very smooth, though the scarcity of primary sources makes it difficult to get clear information about his years as king. The official version of events states that his principal wife convinced him to abdicate in favor of his nephew Na’akueto La’ab, the son of Harbay whom Lalibela had deposed. The existence of orally transmitted historical tradition, which was living for centuries among the Ethiopian Christians revered him as a saint after his death. He also canonized by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as a saint. Finally, to remember his legacy forever, Roha was re-named after his name Lalibäla, and his churches became the second most important pilgrimage destination in Ethiopia after St. Mery Zion Church of Axum.

To be Continued…