Lalibela is said to have seen Jerusalem and then attempted to build a new Jerusalem as his capital in response to the capture of old Jerusalem by Muslims in 1187. As such, many features have Biblical names – even the town's river is known as the River Jordan. It remained the capital of Ethiopia from the late 12th century and into the 13th century.
The first European to see these churches was the Portuguese explorer Pêro da Covilhã (1460–1526). Portuguese priest Francisco Álvares (1465–1540), who accompanied the Portuguese Ambassador on his visit to Lebna Dengel in the 1520s. His description of these structures concludes:
I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more ... I swear by God, in Whose power I am, that all I have written is the truth.
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