The most notable of the rulers of the Zagwe Dynasty was King Lalibela who reigned from 1167 to 1207. A brilliant achievement of his reign was the construction of a dozen Beautiful Rock-Hewn Churches. According to legend, a dense cloud of bees surrounded the Prince Lalibela at the moment of his birth. His mother, claiming that the bees represented the soldiers who would one day serve her son, chose for him the name Lalibela, meaning “the bees recognize his sovereignty”. Lalibela’s older brother, King Harbay, was made jealous by these prophecies about his brother and tried to poison him. While Lalibela was drugged, angels transported him to various realms of heaven where God gave him directions to build a New Jerusalem with churches in a unique style. Lalibela also learned that he need not fear for his life or his sovereignty, for God had anointed him so that he might build the churches. After three days of Divine Communication, Lalibela returned to mortal existence and accepted the throne from his brother, who had also been visited by God (and told to abdicate to Lalibela). Both brothers traveled to the city of Roha and began the construction of the churches.
Assisted by angels and St. Gabriel, they built twelve extraordinary churches over a period of twenty-five years. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church later canonized the King and changed the name of the city of Roha to Lalibela. The most remarkable of the Lalibela churches, called Bet Giorgis, is dedicated to St. George, the patron saint of Ethiopia. According to legend, when King Lalibela had almost completed the group of churches which God had instructed him to build, Saint George appeared (in full armor and riding his white horse) and sharply reproached the king for not having constructed a house for him. Lalibela promised to build a church more beautiful than all the others for the saint.
The Church of Bet Giorgis is a nearly perfect cube, hewn in the shape of a cross, and is oriented so that the main entrance is in the west and the holy of hollies in the east. The nine windows of the bottom row are blind; the twelve windows above are functional. One of the most sophisticated details of Bet Giorgis is that the wall thickness increases step by step downwards but that the horizontal bands of molding on the exterior walls cleverly hide the increase. The roof decoration, often used today as the symbol of the Lalibela Monuments, is a relief of Three Equilateral Greek Crosses inside each other. The church is set in a deep pit with perpendicular walls and it can only be entered via a hidden tunnel carved in the stone. Inside is a fresco of Saint George slaying the dragon, and low relief sculptures of crosses and saints.