The village of Gännätä Maryam (Amharic ገነተ ማርያም – ‘Garden/Paradise of Mary’) lies at about 2300 m above sea level between Mount Abunä Yosef (4260 m) and the upper reaches of the Täkkäze (or Tekeze), the largest river in northern Ethiopia. It is located in Lasta wäräda (district), 11 km SE of Lalibäla as the crow flies, or about 22 km by road.
Its basilica church, which serves a monastic community as well as the villagers, was hewn out of the rock (volcanic tuff) no later than the end of the 13th century. The church is surrounded by a colonnade and a narrow inner compound bounded by the walls of the rock out of which the church was carved. Access is through a short tunnel through the rock.
In 2015 there was a brief period – between the removal of the old protective canopy and the installation of the new one – when the decoration of the church roof could be seen without obstruction.
In front of the church to the south is a ‘platform’ or outer compound used by the congregation, which is reached by a steep path from the village. Next to the platform are a couple of recent buildings intended for storage and to house a museum, and the monks’ dwellings. Until at least 2010 these were traditional round tukuls, but many have now been rebuilt with more modern materials.
Gännätä Maryam was selected for closer investigation because the wall paintings in the church include a portrait of the first Solomonic ruler, Yǝkunno Amlak (1270–1285), with the inscription: ‘In giving thanks to God. It is I who have this church built, I, King Yǝkwǝnno Amlak, whom God made king by his good will.’ This suggests that it was an important site during the expansion of the Solomonic domains.