Said to have been created in the 12th century (although some suggest some of them date back to the 7th century), the 11 churches of Lalibela in a mountainous region of northern Ethiopia are famous for having been each carved out of a monolith.

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The top of one of the churches at Lalibela. PICTURE: Nancy Carels (licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The churches were created on the orders of King Lalibela, of the Zagwe Dynasty, who, in the 12th century, set out to construct a ‘New Jerusalem’ after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. It's generally accepted that the layout of buildings in Lalibela - including the rock-cut churches - are laid out in what's said to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem.

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Bete Goyorgis (House of St George). PICTURE: fabian Pic´s (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

The churches were created by being chiselled out from monolithic blocks of volcanic tuff rock from the top down. Legend tells of how angels helped in their construction. Among them are what is believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world - Biete Medhani Alem (House of the Saviour of the World). 

It is believed that most of the churches were used for that purpose from the time of their creation but it has been suggested that two of them - the Biete Mercoreos (House of St Mercoreos) and Biete Gabriel Rafael (House of Gabriel Raphael) may have been royal residences. 

The Church of Biet Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael) features replicas of the tomb of Christ and that of Adam as well as the crib of the Nativity while the Biete Ghiorgis (House of St George) forms the shape of a cross. The churches are connected by an extensive system of drainage ditches, tunnels and subterranean passageways.

The churches at Lalibela immediately became and remain today an important site of pilgrimage for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.

The churches, which are about 645 kilometres from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, were included on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1978. Concerns have recently been expressed about their future after forces from Ethiopia's Tigray region took control of the town.