The small town of Lalibela in Ethiopia 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.
Were it not for these extraordinary churches, Lalibela would almost certainly be well off the tourist radar. A dusty rural town nestled into rolling countryside, Lalibela only recently received electricity. It has few motorized vehicles, no gas stations and no paved streets. Isolated from the modern world, the town goes about its business much as it has for several hundred years.
Of Lalibela’s 8-10,000 people, over 1,000 are priests. 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’s goal was to create a New Jerusalem for those who could not make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land (and to create a sacred city to rival powerful Axum, with its Ark of the Covenant). According to some reports, he had been to the Holy Land himself and was inspired by what he saw. But the king made no attempt to copy the churches of the Holy Land; in fact, Lalibela’s sacred architecture could not be more unique.
The churches of Lalibela were not constructed — they were excavated.
© Martin Gray
Each church was created by first carving out a wide trench on all four sides of the rock, then painstakingly chiselling out the interior.
The largest church is 40 feet high, and the labour required to complete such a task with only hammers and chisels is astounding.
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. It is covered with old cloths and only the priests may look on it.
King Lalibela’s project for gaining the church’s favour had two unexpected results:
1) Creation of a holy place of unparalleled beauty and 2) the king’s conversion to a religious life.
After labouring for 20 years, he abdicated his throne to become a hermit, living in a cave and eating only roots and vegetables. To this day, Ethiopian Christians regard King Lalibela as one of their greatest saints.
The churches have been in continuous use since they were built in the 12th century. The first Europeans to see these extraordinary holy sites were Portugese explorers in the 1520s, one of whom noted in his journal that the sights were so fantastic, he expected readers of his descriptions would accuse him of lying.
What to See at the Rock-Cut Churches of Lalibela
The roofs of the Lalibela churches are level with the ground and are reached by stairs descending into narrow trenches.
The churches are connected by tunnels and walkways and stretch across sheer drops. The interior pillars of the churches have been worn smooth by the hands of supplicating worshippers.
The rock-cut churches are simply but beautifully carved with such features as fragile-looking windows, mouldings of various shapes and sizes, different forms of crosses, swastikas (an Eastern religious motif) and even Islamic traceries. Several churches also have wall paintings.
Each church has its own resident monk who appears in the doorway in colourful brocade robes. Holding one of the church’s elaborate processional crosses, usually made of silver, and sometimes a prayer staff, these monks are quite happy to pose for pictures.
There are 11 rock-cut churches at Lalibela, the most spectacular of which is Bet Giorgis (St. George’s).
The most spectacular of the 11 rock-hewn churches at Lalibela is Bet Giorgis (St. George), shaped like a Greek… © Paul Zizk
Located on the western side of the cluster of churches, it is cut 40 feet down and its roof forms the shape of a Greek cross. It was built after Lalibela’s death (c.1220) by his widow as a memorial to the saint-king. It is a magnificent culmination of Lalibela’s plans to build a New Jerusalem, with its perfect dimensions and geometrical precision.
Unlike some of the other churches, St. George’s is plain inside. A curtain shields the Holy of Holies, and in front of it usually stands a priest displaying books and paintings to visitors. In the shadows of one fo the arms of the cruciform church is its tabot, or copy of the Ark of the Covenant.
One explorer was allowed to open it and found it empty. No one was able to tell him what happened to its contents.
In the “Northern Group” across the main road from St. George, the most notable church is Beta Medhane Alem, home to the Lalibela Cross and believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world. It is thought to be a copy of St. Mary of Zion in Axum.
Bete Medhane Alem is linked by walkways and tunnels to Beta Maryam (St. Mary’s), possibly the oldest of the churches. 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.
Next to Beta Maryam is Beta Golgotha, known for its artwork which includes life-sized carvings of saints on the walls.
It is also home to the tomb of King Lalibela, over which stands a gold-draped Ark. The Western group is completed by the Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam.
The “Eastern Group” includes:
Farther afield lie the monastery of Ashetan Maryam and Yimrehane Kristos church (possibly from the 11th century).
Dan Cruickshank, Around the World in 80 Treasures
Norbert Brockman, Encyclopedia of Sacred Places
Colin Wilson, Atlas of Holy Places and Sacred Sites pp. 18-19.