This second group comprises from east to west, the churches and sanctuaries of Bet Emanuel, Bet Mercurios, Bet Abba Libanos, the Chapel of Bet Lehem and Bet Gabriel-Rufa’el.
Approaching the town of Roha-Lalibela from the south, you will see, south of the river Jordan, a bastion of red tuff severed from the rock plateau in the north, east and south by a broad artificial outer trench, eleven metres deep. Another deep central trench cuts this area into two parts, leaving at its end a cone-shaped hill. An old entrance led from this central trench to the sanctuaries mainly by way of narrow subterranean passages. The ‘Original function of this complex of churches has not yet been clarified. Two of them were certainly planned as such, Bet Emanuel and Bet Abba Libanos. They have a proper church plan and are oriented to the east.
Art historians consider Bet Emanuel to be the finest and most impressive church in Lalibela. Looked at from above, its mighty, flat- pitched roof can be seen glistening from the rock cradle that houses the church. It is the only true monolithic structure of this group, carefully sculptured from a block 18 X 12 X 12 m. The church offers an almost classic example of Axumite style despite the fact that the floor and side plans follow the true basilica pattern with a proper east-west orientation.
Entering the courtyard you will see this fascinating church on its stepped platform shining in the bright red colour of the Lalibela tuff. The imitation of Axumite wood and stone construction is striking, its walls built in horizontal and vertical bands, alternately recessed and projecting. At the three entrances, in front of which the stepped platform widens into landings, the church has a framework of protruding beams; genuine monkey-heads are missing. There are three rows of windows, the bottom and top ones having frames with corner posts. The bottom windows are pierced in that shape of straight Greek crosses; those in the top row have no fillings.
Inside you will find the true basilica plan: aisles and a mighty vaulted nave. Yet Axumite style is here again: the in- dentations in the outside walls, in which all the doors and windows are placed, reflect the internal division, as do the mouldings, the number of aisles and bays, the position of the galleries and the height of the vault. In the hall there are four complete and four three-sided pillars. A rock staircase leads from a side room by the main entrance to a second storey, here little rock chambers surround the hall. The striking interior feature is the double frieze of blind windows in the vaulted nave, the lower frieze being purely ornamental, the upper one consisting of windows alternating with decorated areas. In the rock floor of the southern aisle a hole opens into a long, subterranean tunnel leading to neighbouring Bet Mercurios.
Chambers and cavities for sacred bees in the outer wall of the courtyard are reminder of the bees that prophesied kingship to Lalibela. Some of the chambers, however, are the graves of monks and pilgrims who wanted to be buried in the “holy city. In this outer wall two further underground passages have been discovered leading to Bet Mercurios.
The church is neither orientated nor conventionally planned. The part serving today as a church occupies the eastern end of a subterranean hall which opens to a courtyard. The interior appears to be void of decoration although there is a fine mural on the lower pan of a pillar, depicting six kings or saints in royal apparel, holding in their hands beautifully shaped hand- crosses, reminiscent of late Gondarene processional crosses.
Rich paintings once adorned the church but for preservation they have been removed and are now to be seen in the National Museum in Addis Ababa.
Bet Abba Libanos
Lalibela’s wife, Maskal Kebra, with the help of angels, is said to have created this church in one night. It is dedicated to one of the most famous monastic saints of the Ethiopian Church, Abba Libanos.
The facade is reminiscent of Axumite architecture, although here – unlike Bet Emanuel – the horizontal bands are missing. It is a good example of a cave church. The roof is not separated from the rock, but the other three sides are detached by a tunnel.
The aisles and the nave of the church run exactly from east to west. The priests will tell you that there is a “little light’; in the middle of the altar-wall shining day and night “by its own power: Conjectures by visitors run from “a piece of phosphorescent stone” to “a hole in the wall” trying to give a more “natural” explanation and at the same time robbing the phenomenon” of the charm of its mystery.
Bet Lehem (The Chapel Of Bethlehem)
You may reach Bet Lehem by a passageway 50 m. long that starts at the right-hand aisle of Bet Emanuel, and passes Bet Mercurios and the courtyard of Abba Libanos. The shrine has been shaped into a cone by the central trench: the tunnel still winds up in spiral form within the hill and ends in a low, round room. A tree-trunk in the room serves as a central pillar.
The original function of this shrine is not known. Visitors may not be allowed to enter the interior of Bet Lehem.
Bet Gabriel-Rufa’el (The House of Gabriel And Raphael Or The House of the Archangels)
Bet Gabriel-Rufa’el (The House Of Gabriel And Raphael Or The House Of The Archangels). This church is more difficult to describe in character and situation than the others. Its disorientation and unusual plan suggest that it was originally not intended to serve as a church. Instead, the floor plan is labyrinthine: three angular halls with pillars and pilasters are squeezed between two courtyards. The most impressive part of the church is the monumental facade.
The church is usually entered from the top of the rock near Bet Emanuel in the east, by a small bridge of logs leading over the central trench.
You may also approach from the east by a series of small tunnels, a gallery like passage and another log bridge 10 m, above the courtyard.
The triangular floor of the northern courtyard is enclosed by walls whence, high up, the facade of the church and the gallery opposite can be seen. Down in the courtyard there is a well and an underground cistern. Steps lead down to a subterranean hall of pillars, where the water sinks or rises, according to the dry and rainy seasons.
The monumental front of the church can only be properly examined from the opposite gallery in the north. This truly royal façade is another example of a survival of the Axumite style; pilasters and niches give the impression of breaking the line of the wall into projections and the niches themselves.
The interior of the church, which is far smaller than the exterior suggests, is carefully hollowed out forming a hall divided by pillars. Three straight Latin crosses are incised into the wall, the only decoration discernible.
The floor in the church has a number of partly covered holes of various sizes which are said to go down to great depth. Drains run across the floor and little grooves surround the holes.