The Northern Group of Churches is found north of symbolic river Jordan and they symbolize “Earthly Jerusalem” except St. George, which symbolize Noah’s Arc by itself.
Bete Medhanialem – means “The House of the Holy Saviour or The House of the Redeemer of the World”
It is the largest and the grandest of the Lalibela rock-hewn churches. It is believed to have been carved in commemoration of the oldest (the 1st) church of St. Mary of Tsion in Axum, which was ruined centuries before the carved churches of Lalibela. What makes the church resemble to that oldest church is the colonnades externally and the five aisles and its orientation internally.
Its chronological order of construction is 2nd to Bete Mariam in the order of being carved by those skilled carvers of the time, which were brought from the entire territory of his empire.
It is the only church in Lalibela with external colonnades of solid pillars on all four sides, which makes it unique from the other rock-hewn churches in Lalibela. And these unique features on the architectural design of this particular church forced historians to write this church resembles to ancient Greek Temples.
There are two rows of windows on the Northern and Southern walls of the church in which the upper ones have round arches, which are architecturally know as “Monks Head Windows”, which resembles to the heads of the grand obelisks in Axum and the lower ones are known as “The Greek Cross Shaped” windows.
Most of the external pillars have had to be restored as a result of their deterioration and collapse caused when earth quake occurred once in the 16th century so the pillars, which were ruined had been reconstructed at two different periods of the Ethiopian Emperors whose names are, Emperor Minelik II and Emperor Haileselasie I, the renovation of the pillars had been accomplished in 1954 Gregorian Calendar.
There are still the original pillars on the eastern wall of the church remaining some of which are cracked and need conservation work that needs care.
Bete Meskel – means “The House of the Cross”
It is a semi- monolithic church as its eastern and western walls of the church are attached to the living rock surrounding the courtyard while its southern and northern
walls are freed from the surrounding rock mountain. It is decorated on its front façade with blind arches, which number 10 that symbolize the Ten Commandments given to Moses.
Internally- we see a closed treasure room on the western part of the church near the Gallery where chanting takes place by the cantors. At the central nave near the sanctuary there used to prevail under glass 12th century wooden altar decorated with Alpha Omega cross on its five sides, which is now kept in the so-called museum (treasure display room) near the ticket office. There is a processional cross made of brass and that is one of the under category of Lalibela crosses from 12th century.
Bete Mariam- means “The House of St. Mary”
The oldest church of the Lalibela rock-hewn churches with a unique design of the three porches at the three entrances so when the three porches incorporate with the basilica floor design of the church building and when seen on aerial view it gives cross shape to the floor of the church.
This church is believed to have been King Lalibela’s favorite church because he has decorated only this church on its internal walls and interior pillars with unique and different crosses, Paintings of many saints and symbols of the Christian World.
Internally, there are 12 pillars, one of them, which is unusually found in the middle of the church, which we call it ” Amde Birhan” locally. Amde Birhan means “The Pillar of Light”, it is elongated up to the vaulted ceiling and it does not have any structural value but its significance and meaning is its symbolic representation to the “Ladder of Jacob” that Jacob saw in his dreams and through this ladder angels climb up and down from heaven to earth. On this particular pillar there are designs engraved over the four sides of this pillar and of these engravings and writings some of them are- words from the bible like the Ten Commandments written in three languages of Geez, Hebrew and Arabic and they are depicted on the pillar and engravings of different saints prevail. The pillar has been covered by “Shema Cloth” since the period of Emperor Fasiledes of the 17th Century who is known in history for founding Gondar as Ethiopia’s third fixed capital city after Roha (present day Lalibela).
There is an upper floor with seven rooms, which is used as Gallery where the most ancient church treasures are housed and the entrance to the upper floor is closed all the time except when authorized priests are allowed to enter when to use some of the treasures for festivals and ceremonies.
Bete Denaghel – means “The House of the Virgins”
It is the only cave church in Lalibela, which resides under the living surrounding rock.
This church is dedicated to the 36 women amongst the 120 families who had followed Jesus Christ during his teachings before His Crucifixion.
There is also a tradition that attributes the church of “Bete Denaghel” as a dedication to the vanished nuns during the Roman Period at the Monastery known by name as “Rohan” in Edessa in Turkey, which was definitively closed by Julius The Apostate, who was a pagan roman king who executed all the nuns in that nunnery and historians believed that King Lalibela wanted to commemorate that vanished monastery and its nuns by having carved this particular church in their commemoration.
Bete Debre Sina -we- Golgotha- means “The House of Holy Mount Sinai and Golgotha ”
These particular churches are Semi-Monolithic architecturally and they are interconnected by a wall in between them and this is locally known as the most mysterious of all, as there are a lot of mysterious carvings that are unseen by the laities.
These churches are unique from other churches because of the internal architectural edifices and the shapes of the internal pillars, which are cruciform in shape, and there are engravings of the apostles on the internal walls of the Golgotha church where there is also the tomb of King Lalibela where we can see an altar on the tomb of the king in which the altar belongs to the holy ark of St. Michael. The Holy Ark of St. Michael is brought in to this church in the 16th Century. Behind the tomb of King Lalibela, there is the Holy Trinity cell where there prevails too many mysterious carvings and fashioned wall with different biblical significance, most of them from the New Testament related to the life of Christ.
Some of the unique features of this church building are the different designs of the crosses seen on the ceiling of Debre Sinai, which are unique to this church particularly.
THE TOMB OF ADAM
It was originally used as the main entrance to the northern group of rock-hewn churches in Lalibela and the structure is a rectangular stone structure with underground tunnel passage and there is a cross known as “Calvary Cross” on the front façade, which represents Christ’s Crucifixion on Mount Calvary for the sin of man since the time of Adam’s and eve’s original sin. The cross’s four arms have leaf shape, which represents that leaf of the apple that Adam and Eve ate and that became the original sin committed by mankind. Behind the rectangular stone structure that is mentioned above is known as the “Symbol of Tomb of Adam” and the semi monolithic church of Bete Debre Sina and Golgotha can be seen behind it.
Bete Ghiorgis- means- “The House of St. George“
This unique rock-hewn church is created in symbolic representation of “Noah’s Ark”. It is Cruciform in architectural design and it is King Lalibela’s last work and his “Master Piece” that we can simply say.
It is the finest of all King Lalibela’s carvings, which is cross shaped building with decorated roof with three crosses in which one embraces the other on the roof, which symbolize the doctrine of the unity of the trinity and the 12 open windows representing the apostles enlightening the world by spreading the words of God throughout the world and that is why the openness of the 12 windows symbolize “the word of God being preached around the world by the apostles enlightens the world”.
The lower row of windows is blind architecturally and those are representing the closed windows of Noah’s Ark in order to protect the deluge from entering in to the ark and this biblical writing is found in the old testament and this shows that the church of St. George has symbolism incorporating symbolic representations from the New Testament and The Old Testament, which also include Mount Ararat where Noah’s Ark landed on its shore and all the species of animals carried by the ark had been released.
What makes this church unique is, there is no any freely standing pillar inside the church building and the King managed to have made a church with out a pillar by only the support of the finest arches from corner to corner and of course with the vaulted ceiling at the very center of the church in which this is advancement of the rock carving architecture in Ethiopia.
Another important point to raise here is, the place where chanting takes place “The Quinie Mahlet” is found outside the church building in another cave, which is unusual in the case of the Lalibela rock-hewn churches and this is also another unique feature and it has the finest drainage system with gutters from the three sides of the roof so no rain water remains on the church’s roof as it drains out right away.