Gebre Meskel Lalibela

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15th-century painting of King Lalibela
King of Zagwe dynasty
PredecessorKedus Harbe
SuccessorNa'akueto La'ab
Roha, Lasta
Bete Golgotha church, Lalibela, Ethiopia
SpouseMasqal Kibra
Regnal name
Gebre Meskel
DynastyZagwe dynasty
FatherJan Seyum
ReligionEthiopian Orthodox Christian
Gebre Meskel Lalibela
Venerated inEthiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
Major shrineBete, Golgotha Church, Lalibela, Ethiopia
Feast19 June

Lalibela (Ge'ez: ላሊበላ), regnal name Gebre Meskel (Ge'ez: ገብረ መስቀል gäbrä mäsqäl, "Servant of the Cross"), was a king of the Zagwe dynasty, reigning from 1181 to 1221.[2]: 22 [3]: 56n  He was the son of Jan Seyum and the brother of Kedus Harbe. Perhaps the best-known Zagwe monarch, he is credited as the patron of the namesake monolithic rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. He is venerated as a saint by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church on 19 June.[4]


The life of Lalibela is recorded in his hagiography, Gadla Lalibela. According to the source, King Lalibela was born in 1162, at a town called Roha (it was later renamed Lalibela after him). He was the son of Jan Seyoum, the governor of Bugna in the province of Lasta. His mother's name was Kirwerna who was a housemaid in the service of Jan Seyoum. When she became pregnant by him, Jan Seyoum became angry and Kirwerna decided to flee to a place called Roha, where she gave birth to Lalibela. A swarm of bees was said to have surrounded him at his birth, which his mother took as a sign of his future power. Accordingly he was named "Lalibela", meaning "the bees recognise his sovereignty" in Old Agaw. Because of this prophecy, he was eventually forced into exile due to the hostility of his uncle Tatadim and his brother Kedus Harbe, who was rightful sovereign. He left for Jerusalem where he remained for many years, upon returning to Ethiopia, he married Meskel Kibra. However, as Harbe was intent on killing him, he was again forced to flee from Lasta with his wife.[5]

Rise to Power[edit]

Ultimately Lalibela did seize the throne, but it is not known how he was able to achieve this. His Gadla does not explain how he rose to power.[6][7] Because Lalibela came to power during his brother's lifetime, Taddesse Tamrat suspects that he took the crown by force of arms.[8]

According to a chronicle from Gojjam, faced with continued persecution by Harbe, Lalibela allied himself with the Amharas, promising them key positions if he succeeded. Delighted with this promise, the Amharas were said to have joined forces with him. In response Harbe rallied behind him the seven clans of the Agaw people. In the ensuring battle Lalibela was entirely victorious and managed to seized the throne, the chronicle then states that Lalibela had the Agaws exiled from Lasta and allowed the Amhara to settle into the area. Hence the Amharic proverb: "Amhara settled, Agaw exiled".[9][10]


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 Muslim forces led by Saladin in 1187. As such, many features of the town of Lalibela have Biblical names including the town's river, known as the River Jordan (Amharic: ዮርዳኖስ ወንዝ, romanized: Yordanos Wenz). 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.[11] According to the narrative of the Portuguese embassy to Ethiopia in 1520-6, written down by Father Francisco Álvares and published in 1540, the Lalibelian priests claimed that the churches took 24 years to construct.[12]

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.[13] Another tradition states that she convinced king Lalibela to 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.[14] Getachew Mekonnen credits her with having one of the rock-hewn churches, Bet Abba Libanos, built as a memorial for Lalibela after his death.[15]

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.[16] The Italian scholar Carlo Conti Rossini has also edited and published the several land grants that survive from his reign.[17]


  1. ^ Budge, E. A. Wallis (1928). A History of Ethiopia: Nubia and Abyssinia (Volume 1). London: Methuen & Co. p. 285.
  2. ^ Getachew Mekonnen Hasen, Wollo, Yager Dibab (Addis Ababa: Nigd Matemiya Bet, 1992)
  3. ^ Tamrat, Taddesse (1972). Church and State in Ethiopia. ISBN 0198216718. OL 4953606M.
  4. ^ "Lalibela Day in Lalibela, commemorates the death of the Saint-King | Tesfa Tours". Retrieved 2022-01-15.
  5. ^ Hable Selassie, Sergew. Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270. p. 265.
  6. ^ Pankhurst, Richard. The Ethiopian Royal Chronicles. p. 9.
  7. ^ Hable Selassie, Sergew. Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270. p. 265.
  8. ^ Taddesse Tamrat, p. 61.
  9. ^ Hable Selassie, Sergew. Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270. p. 265.
  10. ^ Mohammad Hassan, The Oromo of Ethiopia, pp.3
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ C.F. Beckingham and G.W.B Huntingford (eds), The Prester John of the Indies: A True Relation of the Lands of Prester John, Being the Narrative of the Portuguese Embassy to Ethiopia in 1520 written by Father Francisco Alvares, Cambridge, published for the Hakluyt Society at the University Press, 1961, vol I. p. 227.
  13. ^ Taddesse Tamrat, pp. 59f.
  14. ^ Taddesse Tamrat, pp. 62f.
  15. ^ Getachew Mekonnen, p. 24.
  16. ^ Taddesse Tamrat, p. 62.
  17. ^ A bibliography for these can be found at Taddesse Tamrat, p. 59.

External links[edit]

Regnal titles
Preceded by Emperor of Ethiopia
Succeeded by