Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site 640 km from Addis Ababa, was built as the capital of a local king following the fall of Axum, and it became the centre of religious authority in Ethiopia. According to legend, in the 12th century Prince Lalibela, of the Zagwe Dynasty, was drugged by his brother the king, who feared he would be overthrown. During his drugged sleep angels brought him to heaven, where God instructed him to return home and build churches of a unique style. His brother later abdicated and Lalibela was crowned king. He gathered an army of craftsmen, who carved out the cliff face at Roha, fashioning 11 churches. It was said that the churches were completed so quickly because angels carried out the work at night.
Lalibela consists of six churches to the north and five churches to the south of the Jordan River. The churches are linked by a series of hewn chancels and tunnels, similar to catacombs. Starting at the eastern cluster of churches, Bieta Medhane Alem is the largest rock-hewn church in the world, almost 800 sq m in area. The interior is reminiscent of cathedral. From the courtyard outside a tunnel leads to another courtyard which has another three churches. The most imposing of these is Bieta Maryam dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It is much more ornately decorated, with the Star of David and the Lalibela Cross. A third courtyard grants access to another two churches, where the remains of the King of Lalibela are rumoured to be buried.