King Lalibela was born at either Adefa or Roha (it was later named Lalibela after him) in Bugna. He was given the name "Lalibela" due to a swarm of bees said to have surrounded him at his birth, which his mother took as a sign of his future reign as Emperor of Ethiopia. Tradition states that he went into exile due to the hostility of his uncle Tatadim and his brother king Kedus Harbe, and was almost poisoned to death by his half-sister. Because Lalibela came to power during his brother's lifetime, Taddesse Tamrat suspects that he came to power by force of arms.
Lalibela is said to have seen Jerusalem in a vision 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 of the town of Lalibela have Biblical names including the town's river, known as the River Jordan. The city remained the capital of Ethiopia from the late 12th century and into the 13th century.
Details about the construction of his 11 monolithic churches at Lalibela have been lost. The later Gadla Lalibela, a hagiography of the king, states that he carved these churches out of stone with only the help of angels.
His chief queen was Masqal Kibra, about whom a few traditions have survived. She induced Abuna Mikael to make her brother Hirun bishop, and a few years later the Abuna left Ethiopia for Egypt, complaining that Hirun had usurped his authority.
Another tradition states that she convinced king Lalibela abdicate in favor of his nephew Na'akueto La'ab, but after 18 months of his nephew's misrule she convinced Lalibela to resume the throne. Taddesse Tamrat suspects that the end of Lalibela's rule was not actually this amiable, and argues that this tradition masks a brief usurpation of Na'akueto La'ab, whose reign was ended by Lalibela's son, Yetbarak. Getachew Mekonnen credits her with having one of the rock-hewn churches, Bet Abba Libanos, built as a memorial for Lalibela after his death.
Unlike the other Zagwe kings, a sizeable amount of written material has survived about his reign, besides the Gadla Lalibela. An embassy from the Patriarch of Alexandria visited Lalibela's court around 1210, and have left an account of him, and Na'akueto La'ab and Yetbarak. The Italian scholar Carlo Conti Rossini has also edited and published the several land grants that survive from his reign