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Lalibela Ethiopia

The small town of Lalibela, in northern 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 growing population of 40,000, 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.

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. 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. 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.

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.

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, moldings 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 colorful 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-hewn churches at Lalibela, the most spectacular of which is Bet Giorgis (St. George's). 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.

Farther afield lie the monastery of Ashetan Maryam and Yimrehane Kristos church (possibly from the 11th century).

Created By
Graham Coates
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