Lalibela - Medieval churches hewn from rock (31 May)
Interesting Facts about Lalibela
RENOWNED FOR ITS rock-cut churches, Lalibela arose between the 12th and 13th centuries as a “second Jerusalem” for worshippers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. More than eight centuries later, the northern Ethiopian city is still a place of pilgrimage and prayer.
Called Roha in its early days, the city was already the capital of the Ethiopian Zagwe kingdom when Gebre Mesqel Lalibela assumed command of the dynasty. A devout Christian, King Lalibela was deeply disturbed by the fall of Jerusalem to the Muslim general Saladin’s troops in 1187. He decided to metaphorically resurrect the holy city in the Ethiopia highlands.
Lalibela’s 11 landmark churches were carved directly into the basaltic scoriaceous stone by skilled artisans, and lie below ground level—they must be reached via precipitous stone stairs or narrow passageways. Exterior decoration is modest, but the church interiors are richly decorated with religious murals, icons, satin curtains, thick woolen carpets, and golden crosses.
Bieta Giyorgis (House of St. George) is the most renowned and probably the nation’s most photographed landmark. Carved in the shape of a Greek cross with a courtyard all around it, the church is illuminated by doors and windows also carved out of the stone. Bieta Medhane Alem (House of the Savior of the World) is the largest church, with a cavernous interior divided by five aisles and more than 35 massive pillars. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Bieta Maryam is one of the most ornamented, its stone columns and ceiling covered in geometric patterns and stars of David.
Hermit caves and graves are also chiseled out of the stone walls. And the countryside all around Lalibela is speckled with more rock-hewn churches, most notably the mountaintop Asheton Maryam monastery.
Mystery continues to enshroud construction of the churches. Some archaeologists believe that such marvels of architecture and engineering couldn’t have been created merely during King Lalibela’s lifetime. They theorize that construction continued for centuries after the monarch’s death or that some of the structures were originally built before his reign as palaces or forts. In general, scholars agree that the city was constructed in several phases between the 7th and 13th centuries.
All of the churches remain active places of worship today, with daily rites and rituals, visiting pilgrims, and resident priests. Thousands of pilgrims swarm the town and churches of Lalibela during Ethiopian Orthodox holidays, especially Gena, Meskel, and Timket when the holy books and golden crosses normally safeguarded in the Holy of Holies (inner sanctuaries) are on display.