Gebre Mesqel Lalibela

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For other uses, see Lalibela (disambiguation).
Gebre Mesqel Lalibela
Gebre Mesqel Lalibela.png
15th century representation of Gebre Mesqel Lalibela
Reign early 13th century
Predecessor Kedus Harbe
Successor Na'akueto La'ab
Consort Masqal Kibra
Issue Yetbarak
Dynasty Zagwe dynasty
Father Jan Seyum

Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (reigned early 13th century), also called simply Lalibela, which means "the bees recognise his sovereignty" in Old Agaw, was negus or king of Ethiopia and a member of the Zagwe dynasty. He is also considered a saint by the Ethiopian church. According to Taddesse Tamrat, he was the son of Jan Seyum and brother of Kedus Harbe. Tradition states that he reigned for 40 years.[1] According to Getachew Makonnen Hasen, his reign was from 1181 to 1221.[2] He is best known as the king who either built or commissioned the monolithic churches of Lalibela.


King Lalibela was born at either Adefa or Roha (it was later named Lalibela after him) in Bugna in 1162 AD. He was given the name "Lalibela" due to a swarm of bees said to have surrounded him at his birth, which his mother took as a sign of his future reign as Emperor of Ethiopia. Tradition states that he went into exile due to the hostility of his uncle Tatadim and his brother king Kedus Harbe, and was almost poisoned to death by his half-sister. Because Lalibela came to power during his brother's lifetime, Taddesse Tamrat suspects that he came to power by force of arms.[3]

Lalibela is said to have seen Jerusalem in a vision and then attempted to build a new Jerusalem as his capital in response to the capture of old Jerusalem by Muslims in 1187. As such, many features of the town of Lalibela have Biblical names including the town's river, known as the River Jordan. The city remained the capital of Ethiopia from the late 12th century and into the 13th century.

Details about the construction of his 11 monolithic churches at Lalibela have been lost. The later Gadla Lalibela, a hagiography of the king, states that he carved these churches out of stone with only the help of angels.[4]

His chief queen was Masqal Kibra, about whom a few traditions have survived. She induced Abuna Mikael to make her brother Hirun bishop, and a few years later the Abuna left Ethiopia for Egypt, complaining that Hirun had usurped his authority.[5] Another tradition states that she convinced king Lalibela abdicate in favor of his nephew Na'akueto La'ab, but after 18 months of his nephew's misrule she convinced Lalibela to resume the throne. Taddesse Tamrat suspects that the end of Lalibela's rule was not actually this amiable, and argues that this tradition masks a brief usurpation of Na'akueto La'ab, whose reign was ended by Lalibela's son, Yetbarak.[6] Getachew Mekonnen credits her with having one of the rock-hewn churches, Bet Abba Libanos, built as a memorial for Lalibela after his death.[7]

Although little written material concerning the other Zagwe kings survives, a sizeable quantity concerning Lalibela's reign remains, besides the Gadla Lalibela. An embassy from the Patriarch of Alexandria visited Lalibela's court around 1210, and have left an account of him, and Na'akueto La'ab and Yetbarak.[8] The Italian scholar Carlo Conti Rossini has also edited and published the several land grants that survive from his reign.[9]


  1. ^ Taddesse Tamrat, Church and State in Ethiopia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 56n.
  2. ^ Getachew Mekonnen Hasen, Wollo, Yager Dibab (Addis Ababa: Nigd Matemiya Bet, 1992), p. 22.
  3. ^ Taddesse Tamrat, p. 61.
  4. ^ The portion of his Gadla describing his construction of these churches has been translated by Richard K. P. Pankhurst in his The Ethiopian Royal Chronicles (Addis Ababa: Oxford University Press), 1967.
  5. ^ Taddesse Tamrat, pp. 59f.
  6. ^ Taddesse Tamrat, pp. 62f.
  7. ^ Getachew Mekonnen, p. 24.
  8. ^ Taddesse Tamrat, p. 62.
  9. ^ A bibliography for these can be found at Taddesse Tamrat, p. 59.

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Regnal titles
Preceded by
Kedus Harbe
Emperor of Ethiopia Succeeded by
Na'akueto La'ab