Ethiopia’s rock-hewn churches

Lalibela Ethiopia’s rock-hewn churches

The small town of Lalibela Perched in Ethiopia’s Lasta Mountains at 2,600m (8,530ft), is home to one of the world's most astounding sacred sites: eleven rock-hewn churches, each carved entirely out of a single block of granite with its roof at ground level.

Religious ritual is central to the life of the town, with regular processions, extensive fasts, crowds of singing and dancing priests. This, combined with its extraordinary religious architecture and simplicity of life, gives the city of Lalibela a distinctively timeless, almost biblical atmosphere.

History of the Rock-Cut Churches of Lalibela

The town of Lalibela was originally known as Roha. It was renamed after the 12th-century King Lalibela, who commissioned these extraordinary churches. Lalibela was a member of the Zagwe dynasty, which had seized the Ethiopian throne around 1000 AD. When his rivals began to increase in power, Lalibela sought the support of the powerful Ethiopian Orthodox Church by building the churches in this small town.

King Lalibela is life is full of legends. It is believed that upon his birth, he was surrounded by a cloud of bees. Hence, his mother gave him the name Lalibela, which means, “the bees recognizes his sovereignty.” Lalibela's older brother, Harbay, the incumbent monarch, was naturally disturbed to hear this news and unsuccessfully tried to have his brother murdered. Persecution continued for several years, culminating in a deadly poison that left the young prince into a three-day coma . During the three-day stupor, Lalibela was transported by angels to heaven, where God ordered him to return to Roha and build churches the like of which the world had never seen before. After Lalibela woke up from the comma and was crowned as a king, he gathered local handymen and started building the churches.

Another legend says that Lalibela has visited Jerusalem and vowed to build a new Jerusalem as his capital in response to the capture of old Jerusalem by Muslims in 1187.The rock churches, although connected to one another by maze-like tunnels, are physically separated by a small river which is called the Jordan. Churches on one side of the Jordan represent the earthly Jerusalem; whereas those on the other side represent the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of jewels and golden sidewalks alluded to in the Bible.

The churches of Lalibela were not constructed — they were excavated. Each church was created by first carving out a wide trench on all four sides of the rock, then chiseling out the interior. The largest church is 40 feet high

Popular legend has it that angels came every night to pick up where the workmen had left off. One of the churches, Bet Maryam, contains a stone pillar on which King Lalibela wrote the secrets of the buildings' construction ,the past and future of the world . Another legend has it that the stone pillar has every individual’s past and future written on it. The dusty red curtains around the pillar permanently cover the linen, refusing to give out the secret, and neither does the resident monk.

World Heritage site

In 1978, the churches of Lalibela were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The churches in the town are still an active place of pilgrimage and worship for the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox faith. To preserve these historic Lalibela churches, UNESCO has built protective covering for four of the churches so that they can be protected from the weather.

What to See at the Rock-Cut Churches of Lalibela

The churches are carved from soft volcanic rock, some cut into the face of a cliff, while others are isolated structures in deeply carved pits with long access passages or trenches. The earliest carved monuments may not have been churches, but in the 10th and 11th centuries AD sophisticated churches of diverse styles were created, with architectural features that scholars believe originated in ancient Aksum, which flourished up to 800 years previously. The finest examples are three-aisle or five-aisle basilicas, carved inside and out, with window openings as well as detailed geometric ornamentation.

In total, there are 13 rock churches in Lalibela — some are monolithic, a few are semi-monolithic (joined to the rock in some parts) and others are carved into the rock. They are divided into three groups: the north-western churches, southeastern churches and Saint George which stands apart from the other clusters.

Bete Giyorgis (Church of Saint George)

Lauded as the most beautiful church in Lalibela, Saint George Church has often been featured in pictures and books. It is possibly the most elegant of all the Lalibela structures, located in the south-west of the village on a sloping rock terrace. In a deep pit with perpendicular walls, it can only be reached through a tunnel entered a distance away through a trench. Small round caves and chambers have been found in the courtyard walls — graves for pious pilgrims and monks.This famous church stands alone in the southwest. Dating to the early 13th century AD, it is the most recently built of the Lalibela churches.

Standing on a three-tiered plinth, Bet Giyorgis is shaped like a Greek cross and has walls — with an alternation of projecting and recessing horizontal layers — reminiscent of Axumite architecture. The church also has an elaborately shaped doorway.

Bet Medhane Alem (Church of Savior of the World)

This church is in the northern part of the complex, and perhaps the oldest of the Lalibela churches. Bet Medhane Alem is the largest of all the Lalibela churches. Built like a Greek temple, it is unusual, being entirely sur¬rounded by square columns, with a further forest of twenty-eight massive rectangular columns supporting the roof inside. Polished by centuries of pressure from countless feet, the stone floor reflects shafts of light from apertures in the walls high above. In a corner, one can see three empty graves said to have been symbolically dug for biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Bet Maryam (Church of Saint Mary)

linked by walkways and tunnels to Bet Medhane Alemm, Bet Maryam has probably the most beautiful frescoes and carvings on its ceiling. Said to be the first church that was built, it’s been immaculately preserved, especially on the inside.

In the east wall of the church is an array of geometric carved windows in a vertical line. From the bottom up is: a Maltese cross in a square; a semi-circle shape like that on the Axum stelae; a Latin cross; and a simple square window. The windows illuminate the Holy of Holies in which the church's copy of the Ark is placed. Other decorations include a Star of David combined with a Maltese cross, a Sun with a smiling human face flanked by eight-spoked wheels, Mary on a donkey accompanied by Joseph, and an Annunciation.

The church is the most popular among pilgrims as it’s dedicated to Virgin Mary, who’s particularly worshipped by Ethiopians.

Bet Meskel (Church of the Holy Cross)

This tiny chapel carved into the northern wall surrounding Bet Maryam is quite a nondescript church that features a small prayer hall and a separate chanting room. Its interior also has four pillars, which represent the four evangelists.

Bet Danagel(Church of the Virgins)

This church is carved into the south wall of the courtyard of Bet Maryam. It is the most roughly hewn of the Lalibela churches. this small church was constructed in memory of the maiden nuns martyred in the orders of 4th century Roman emperor Julian.

Bet Golgotha(Church of Golgotha)

This is one of the holiest Lalibela sites. This is believed to be the burial site of King Lalibela. While his tomb is not accessible to visitors or pilgrims today, it’s said to be placed in a crypt under the floor of Golgotha Church, covered with a large stone slab so heavy that nobody can move it. There’s a hole in its centre, which allows pilgrims to touch the saint’s grave and extract dust to cure diseases. Next to Lalibela’s grave stands a replica of the Tomb of Christ. Its known for its artwork which includes life-sized carvings of saints on the walls

Debre Sina Mikael (Church of Mount Sinai – Saint Michael)

This church has a similar structure to that of its twin church of Bet Golgotha. It has the only cruciform pillars in the Lalibela churches. The church is erected on a base type Axumite three tiers and the whole building is about 11.5 meters high. In order to access the church, you’ll have to walk along the trench and climb up the narrow steps.

Bet Gabriel-Rufael (Church of Gabriel and Rufael)

Located at the entrance of the group of south-eastern churches, this impressive twin church is the only one that’s accessible from its top, via a rock bridge known as the “Way to Heaven”. Its architecture and layout are very different to the other churches, featuring an irregular floor plan rather than a cross-shaped layout. This has led scholars to think that this may have been a fortified palace rather than a church for the Aksumite royalty from as early as the 7th century

Bet Merkorios (Church of Merkorios)

It’s connected to Bet Gabriel-Rufael by a series of intriguing tunnels and trenches — and wandering along these tunnels is an experience on its own. As a large part of the church has collapsed, it’s been restored and supported by several ugly but necessary brick walls.

Bet Amanuel (Church of Emanuel)

This church is in the eastern part of the complex. It is linked to the courtyard of Bet Mekorios by a 35 metre long tunnel and has the most intricate external ornamentation. Bet Emanuel is perhaps the finest; its elaborate exterior much praised by art historians. The structure contains a large hall with four pillars, and its irregularly placed windows arc Axumite in style, as are the walls. A spiral staircase leads up to an upper storey. The most striking interior feature is the double frieze of blind windows in the vaulted nave, the lower frieze being purely ornamental and the upper consisting of windows (to provide light from the galleries) alternating with decorated areas.

chambers and cavities for sacred bees in the outer wall of the courtyard are a reminder of the bees that prophesied kingship to Lalibela. Some of the chambers, however, are the graves of monks and pilgrims who wanted to be buried in this 'holy city'.

Bet Abba Libanos (Church of Libanos)

This rectangular church is in the eastern part of the complex, and is carved on all four sides, but is continuous with the rock above it. It is linked to a structure known as Bet Lehem.

The history, ancient culture, and spirituality of this African town are inspiring – and the sacredness of the monolithic churches will fill you with a feeling of wonder. Travelling to Lalibela is an experience of a lifetime. One that you’ll never forget.

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