Lalibela was originally known as Roha during the reign of St. Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, and was later named after him – Lalibela. St. Gebre was a member of the Zagwe Dynasty who ruled Ethiopia for around 40 years in the late 12th century. The name “Lalibela“ was given to him because he was surrounded by a swarm of bees at birth; his mother took this a sign of his future reign of Ethiopia. The name “Lalibela“ means “the bees recognise his sovereignty“ (that’s a lot to fit in one word!) in Old Agaw, a Cushitic language no longer spoken in Ethiopia. Lalibela was the capital of Ethiopia until the 13th century – the current capital is Addis Ababa (Amharic: አዲስ አበባ).
It is rumoured that Gebre attempted to build a New Jerusalem as the capital in response to Muslims capturing old Jerusalem in 1187. Because of this, many places in Lalibela have names of Biblical origin – one example being the river in the town, which is called the River Jordan.
St. Gebre is also well-known as the king who commissioned/built Lalibela’s monolithic churches – the main attraction of Lalibela.