Imagine being a slave in Ethiopia during the 12th and 13th century reign of King Lalibela. Now imagine being handed a chisel, hammer, and an axe, and told to carve a three-story high church out of solid rock. Inconceivable, certainly. But when you consider that the King actually completed construction of the 11 magnificent rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in a span of just 23 years, the feat is practically incomprehensible.
Perhaps he had help beyond the corporeal plane. It is said that Lalibela performed miracles throughout his life. According to legend, when he was born his body was covered with a swarm of bees. His name is a combination of two words, “lal” and “ybella,” which translates to “honey eaters.” Today the city that is home to the rock-hewn churches proudly bears his name, and the surrounding countryside produces the country’s finest honey.
Ethiopia adopted Christianity in the first half of the fourth century, making it one of the earliest countries in the world to do so. King Lalibela was a devout Christian and still today, nearly all residents of the town named in his honor are Eastern Orthodox Christians. Myths swirl around this remarkable monarch. Ethiopians believe he was transported to Jerusalem numerous times by the archangels Gabriel and Michael. It was during one of these visits that God directed him to sculpt the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela out of the surrounding volcanic stone. This New Jerusalem, as it was known, allowed pilgrims to continue honoring their God after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
Today these churches stand as one of the world’s best examples of rock-cut architecture. Each of the 11 churches were carved from solid rock in a single piece. Some are “monolithic” – attached to the rock only at the base, while others are attached to the base as well as one or more side walls, making them “semi-monolithic.” I began with the Northern Group of churches. After a brief visit to the site’s small museum, my guide led me to Bete Medhane Alem (Saviour of the World). Considered to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world, it can hold up to 500 people. Inside, the dense stone walls oozed solemnity. I found it difficult to speak louder than a whisper as I wandered between pillars, examining antique carpets, giant handmade drums, and ancient tapestries covering the walls from floor to ceiling.
We continued to a second courtyard shared by Bete Maryam (House of Mary), Bete Meskel (House of the Cross), and Bete Sillase. Bete Maryam was the first church built and is reputed to contain frescoes painted by Lalibela himself.
The most interesting feature of Bete Maryam are its windows (see the photo below). The top row of three windows represents the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Just below, the window with a cross represents Jesus, while the unusual cutout beneath the cross represents the womb of Mary. The bottom row is symbolic of the crucifixion. Jesus is in the center, flanked by two windows that represent the two thieves who were crucified on either side of him. The thief on the right asked for and was granted forgiveness by Jesus, thus he ascended into heaven (note the carved arrow pointing upward above the window). The window on the left represents the thief who did not repent of his sins, thus he was not forgiven and descended into hell (note the carved arrow pointing down).
Also of note within the Northern Group was Bete Denagel (House of Virgins). A remarkable, ancient painting on cowhide of St. George slaying the Dragon is on display inside this small, windowless sanctuary.
The following day we explored the Southeastern Group, beginning with the Church of the Archangel Gabriel and Raphael. Because of its location next to a kitchen where the holy host was prepared for all four churches in the group, some believe this structure was originally used as a royal palace.
The most impressive of the Eastern Group was Bete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), the only monolithic church in this grouping. Bete Markorios, the second largest of all, would be impressive if not for water damage that has collapsed its roof.
But without doubt, the highlight of the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela was Bete Giyorgis (the Church of Saint George). Thought to be the most finely executed and best preserved rock-cut church in the world, it is the highlight of any trip to Ethiopia. Carved from the surrounding volcanic tuff in the shape of a cross, it has three stories and stands nearly 40-feet high. Lalibela employed everything he had learned from constructing the 10 previous churches. First, workers excavated a free-standing block of stone out of the bedrock, then removed all the waste material from the pit. Stone masons carefully chiseled the church from the solid block, shaping both the exterior and interior of the building into the form of a cruciform cross.
It was an astonishing achievement, and one that seemed even more impossible when I stood atop an adjacent hill for an overview. Just before sunset, the clouds parted and the rich afternoon sun streamed down, turning Bete Giyorgis into a burnished golden cross that seemed to be dangling from the hand of God.
Nine-hundred years after they were weaned from the surrounding rock, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are still a major pilgrimage site. Not only do the faithful travel to Lalibela from all over the world to pray for blessings and healings, each of the churches continue to host worship services that are faithfully attended by the locals every Sunday. It’s no wonder that the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status and are often referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”