Lalibela (c.1185-1225) is the most well known and marveled of all the Zagwe kings. He is credited for building the eleven famous rock-hewn churches in his capital city, known originally as Roha but renamed as Lalibela after his death (Prouty and Eugene 115-6). However, it should be stressed that Lalibela wasn’t the first to build rock-hewn churches; churches that date two centuries earlier were constructed in Tigray (Pankhurst 49).
Lalibela’s life is full of legends. It is believed that upon his birth, he was surrounded by a cloud of bees. Hence, his mother gave him the name Lalibela, which means, “the bees recognizes his sovereignty.” Also according to legend, he was commanded by God “to build ten monolithic churches (Henze 51).”
Numerous sites in Lalibela were given biblical names such as a stream called Jordanos and graves called Adam and Jesus Christ. This was an effort by the king to recreate Jerusalem, the Holy City, in his city, for Jerusalem had been captured by Muslims and pilgrimage for Ethiopian Christians had become difficult (Pankhurst 52-3).
The eleven rock-hewn churches are: Madhané Alam, Maryam, Denagel, Sellasé, Golgotha, Mika’él, Amanu’él, Marquréwos, Abba Libanos, Gabr’él-Rufa’él, and Giyorgis. Lalibela was buried in Golgotha (Pankhurst 49-52).