Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela
September was the halfway point of my assignment in Ethiopia. I was fortunate enough to have my husband come for a visit (yeah!) to celebrate our anniversary and the Ethiopian New Year (September 12th welcomed the year 2008!).
After the celebrations and explorations of Addis Ababa were complete, we traveled to Lalibela, an old town in a northern mountainous region of Ethiopia. It is known for its 12th century rock-hewn churches that have been in continuous use since they were built. King Lalibela wanted there to be a holy city for people unable to pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and thus commissioned creation of these churches. Ethiopia was one of the earliest countries to adopt Christianity (4th century) and the town of Lalibela is still predominantly Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, with well over 1000 priests living in town.
The churches are not replicas of Jerusalem, but each has a unique design. All 11 of the churches are monolithic, thus excavated and carved entirely out of a single block of granite. The roofs are at ground level; to enter you must descend stairs to the base, often into narrow trenches. The workmen first had to dig out trenches in the rock to expose the sides of the church building. Then they painstakingly carved every aspect of the church’s exterior detail and interior features using only hammers and chisels. They also carved features into the stone to replicate a built-up church (eg, the look of beams to support the structure, domed ceilings, and interior pillars). The priests say that angels came every night to work on the churches while the workmen slept.
The churches are all connected with walkways, tunnels, or a common courtyard.
The Lalibela churches were designated as one of the first UNESCO world heritage sites in 1978, which brought attention to Ethiopia, Lalibela, and highlighted the importance of preservation. Several of the churches have structures above to protect from continuing erosion.
The most photographed church is Bet Giorgis (House of St. George) because its roof is shaped like a Greek cross. King Lalibela’s widow built this church as a memorial to the saint-king. It shows some improvements from the earlier designs, such as geometrical precision and the inclusion of gutters in the roof to keep rain from the sides of the building. However, the interior of St. George’s is without notable adornments.
Beta Golgotha (House of Golgotha Mikael) is the home to King Lalibela’s tomb and is known for its artwork, including life-sized carvings of saints on the walls. Only men are allowed into this church.
Beta Maryam (House of Mary) is possibly the oldest Lalibela church. It has several geometric carved windows of different crosses. Some of the original 12th century paintings can still be seen on the walls and ceiling. This church also contains a stone pillar on which King Lalibela wrote the secrets of the buildings’ construction; however, it is kept covered.
Our second day we visited the semi-monolithic Ashetan Maryam monestary. It was built at 3150m/10,300ft, atop Abune Yosef mountain, because the local priests believed they were closer to heaven and God. We had to climb up the mountain, with an elevation gain of approximately 650m/2100ft! Luckily we had made friends with a couple of mules who helped us out part of the way.
A monk showed us several ancient artifacts. The most interesting was orthodox books written in the Ge’ez language on goatskin parchment using natural inks – they still look amazing and they may be up to 800 years old! My country wasn’t even imaginable at that time.