Rock-cut architecture is the creation of structures like buildings by excavating solid rock where it naturally occurs. In India the term 'cave' is often applied, and in China 'cavern,' but one must differentiate natural caves, even if tidied and extended by man, from rock-cut architecture which is wholly man-made and so in every respect a part of architecture and its history. Though rock-cut architecture differs from traditional architecture in many obvious ways, many rock-cut structures are often made to replicate traditional architectural forms in the facades and even in their interiors. The interiors were usually carved out by starting at the roof of the planned space and then working downward, for the obvious reason that stones would not be falling on one's head. The three main uses of rock-cut architecture were temples (like those in India), tombs (like those in Petra, Jordan) and cave dwellings (like those in Cappadocia, Turkey).
Some rock-cut architecture, mostly for tombs, is excavated entirely in chambers under the surface of relatively level rock. If the excavation is instead made into the side of a cliff or steep slope there can be an impressive facade, as found in Lycian tombs, Petra, Ajanta and elsewhere. The most laborious and impressive rock-cut architecture is the excavation of tall free-standing monolithic structures entirely below the surface level of the surrounding rock, in a large excavated hole around the structure. Ellora in India and Lalibela in Ethiopia provide the most spectacular and famous examples of such structures.
Lalibela is a town in northern Ethiopia that is famous for its monolithic rock-cut churches. Lalibela is one of Ethiopia's holiest cities, second only to Aksum, and is a center of pilgrimage for much of the country. Unlike Aksum, the population of Lalibela is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. The layout and names of the major buildings in Lalibela are widely accepted, especially by the local clergy, to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem. This has led some experts to date the current form of its churches to the years following the capture of Jerusalem in 1187 by the Muslim soldier Saladin.
Located in the Semien Wollo Zone of the Amhara ethnic division (or kilil) at 2,500 meters above sea level, Lalibela has a latitude and longitude of . It is the main town in Lasta woreda, which was formerly part of Bugna woreda.