Ethiopia

The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia

Lalibela, initially known as Roha, was the Zagwe dynasty’s capital in the 12th and 13th centuries. After the death of King Lalibela, the ruler credited with the construction of the churches, the town was named after him.

In an unusual consensus, scholars and local tradition agree that the churches date from around King Lalibela’s reign in the 12th or 13th century. The myth is that King Lalibela was poisoned by his half-brother and while in a coma he went on a journey to heaven (others say Jerusalem) where god instructed him to return to Ethiopia and re-create the holy city of Jerusalem there (The poisoning episode, if true, may explain the subsequent hallucinations, mistaken as visions, by King Lalibela).

Even the names of Lalibela’s features echo those of Jerusalem: the River Jordan, the Tomb of Adam and Calvary… However, the buildings are so different from each other in style, craftsmanship and state of preservation that they conceivably span a much longer period than Lalibela’s reign.

The harmonious agreement between scholars and local tradition disappears when discussions about who built the churches arise. Scientists have calculated that it would have taken a workforce of 40,000 to construct the churches, while locals claim that, toiling all the hours of daylight, the earthly workforce was then replaced by a celestial one, who toiled all the hours of darkness. In this way, the churches rose at a miraculous speed. By the way, the locals really believe that sort of thing…

For today’s tour, I’ll focus on the Northwestern Group of Churches. This group contains six of Lalibela’s 11 churches. From a size perspective, this group is the most impressive:

Bet Medhane Alem

Resembling a massive Greek temple more than a traditional Ethiopian church, Bet Medhane Alem (Savior of the World) is impressive for its size (and impossibility to photograph).  Said to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world, it measures 33.5 meters by 23.5 meters and is more than 11.5 meters high.

Some scientists suggest that the church may be a copy of the original St. Mary of Zion church in Aksum.

The building is surrounded by 34 large rectangular columns with three joined at each corner (thought to represent the holy trinity):

Lalibela

The interior consists of a barrel-vaulted nave and four aisles. Three empty graves in one corner are said to have been prepared symbolically for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

In 1997 a 7kg gold cross was stolen from this church by an Ethiopian antique dealer and sold to a Belgian tourist for $25,000. The cross was recovered, but if you look at this old boy, it doesn’t seem as if it would be difficult to repeat the non-consensual transfer of ownership of the gold cross:

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

Pierced stone ‘panels’ fill the windows, each decorated with different central crosses:

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

Bet Maryam, Bet Meskel and Bet Danaghel

Connected to Bet Medhane Alem by a tunnel is a large courtyard containing three churches. The first, Bet Maryam, is small yet designed and decorated to a high standard. Dedicated to the virgin Mary, who’s particularly venerated in Ethiopia, this is the most popular church among pilgrims. Some believe it may have been the first church built by Lalibela:

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

The courtyard:

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

This is a view inside the pit you see an outline of in the above photograph… I was advised that it is still used for baptisms even in its present, ummm, less than pristine state:

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

A view down on Bet Maryam:

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

The interior:

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

Drums tucked into an alcove on Bet Maryam:

Bet Maryam

Of more interest to me in the “Northwestern Group of Churches” than the churches were the living arrangements of some of those affiliated with the churches. The many alcoves and niches carved long ago in the walls surrounding the churches provide shelter and storage…

This is someone’s bedroom:

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

And this is a luxury bedroom (relatively speaking):

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

Firewood stored for those cold Ethiopian nights:

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

Carved into the courtyard’s northern wall at Bet Maryam is the tiny semi-chapel of Bet Meskel:

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

To the south of the Bet Maryam courtyard is the chapel of Bet Danaghel, said to have been constructed in memory of the maiden nuns martyred on the orders of the 4th-century Roman emperor Julian in Edessa (modern-day Turkey). Many of its features – the cruciform pillars and bracket capitals – are typical architectural features of the churches:

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

Bet Golgotha, Bet Mikael and Selassie Chapel:

Another tunnel at the southern end of the Bet Maryam courtyard connects it to the twin churches of Bet Golgotha and Bet Mikael (also known as Bet Debre Sina).

Bet Mikael serves as the anteroom to the Selassie Chapel, however, both are rarely open (and weren’t when my Italian and I visited).

Bet Golgotha is known for containing some of the best examples of Ethiopian Christian art (if that’s your thing). An arched recess in the northeast of the church features a recumbent figure carved in high relief; above it, in low relief, hovers an angel. This recess is known as the ‘Tomb of Christ’ and nearby is a movable slab of stone, which supposedly covers the most important place in the holy city – the tomb of King Lalibela himself.

Such is the importance of Golgotha that a visit is said to assure your place in heaven (Given that I have now visited Bet Golgotha, this is undoubtedly disappointing news to some).

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

Bet Golgotha also prides itself on possessing some of Lalibela’s most important religious “treasures” – including a blackened metal cross and a large prayer stick, both supposed belongings of King Lalibela.

The door leading into Bet Golgotha:

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

Resting in a deep trench in front of the western facade of Bet Golgotha is the so-called Tomb of Adam. It consists of a giant, hollowed-out block of stone.

The trench is accessed via the following stairs… In the background are the walls of Bet Golgotha:

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

All around the edges of the rocks that were carved out to house the churches, I noticed these holes… They bear an uncanny resemblance to the Indian grinding holes of Oregon House. Perhaps they were used for a similar purpose? Or perhaps they were used to lock in poles that supported a structure over the workers so they were not exposed to the full brutality of the sun while they were working? Or perhaps someone was just bored…

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

The Northwestern Group of Churches empties out into the village of Lalibela which I believe I will use as a segue to talk about the present-day town of Lalibela itself in my next post:

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela - northwestern group

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See also the southeastern group of churches and/or Bet Giyorgis.

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7 thoughts on “The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia

  1. Pingback: Lalibela, Ethiopia « The Velvet Rocket

  2. I’ll bet your further articles about Lalibela won’t be too kind. I enjoyed our visit to the Lalibela’s churches but people especially here are far to greedy.

  3. Pingback: Bet Giyorgis, Lalibela « The Velvet Rocket

  4. Pingback: The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela – The Southeastern Group « The Velvet Rocket

  5. Tenestellen~Those fortunate enough to visit these most sacred sites must know the reverence applied by We Ethiopians regarding Our Churches,Our Clegy and Our sacred relics. It is a privilge and a great honor some of Us with Ethiopian ancestry never can achieve physically,yet is always in Our hearts.

  6. Pingback: The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela – The Southeastern Group … | Viviana Web site

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