North Ethiopia: The Historical Route - Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela



April 25, 2011

There’s a charming legend about the creation of the rock hewn churches of Lalibela:

“Nearly 1000 years ago (12th – 13th Century), King Lalibela was poisoned by his half brother.  While in a coma, he was taken by angels to the first, second and third heavens. (Or was it Jerusalem?)  Here he was shown a fabulous city of rock-hewn churches.  Then G-d himself commanded him to return to earth, re-creating what he had seen, and build a new Jerusalem.”

Who built the churches? 

“Scholars have estimated that it would have taken a workforce of 40,000 to construct the churches.  Local people claim the daylight workforce of earthly workers was replaced by a celestial workforce, who toiled all hours in the darkness.  In this way, the churches rose at a miraculous speed.”

"Long a victim of the usual ‘it can’t be African' chauvinism, Lalibela in fact almost certainly represents the pinnacle of a very long-standing Ethiopian building tradition, including the ancient Aksumite style.  If angels did build the churches, they were almost certainly Ethiopian angels.” *

My visit to Lalibela coincided with Holy Week.  Hundreds of local residents as well as pilgrims from the area came to the churches to celebrate. Many entered the church to pray.  Family groups and friends gathered on the grounds of the church complex.  Others found a quiet spot for a quiet moment.

At first I thought that these rock-hewn churches are unique.  But then I remembered Cappadocia in Turkey and the rock-hewn churches and underground towns.  But there is one important difference.  In Central Turkey, the rock or “tuff” is soft, so soft in fact that it can be dug with a spoon or even with finger nails.  A family home can be excavated in just one day.  In Lalibela, the rock is hard – well, “as hard as a rock.” 

And I did remind myself that these churches are not built of rock.   They are carved in the rock, excavated from the rock, and in some cases, completely separated from the rock from whence they came. 

In Lalibela I organized a group.  We hired a van and rode into the mountains to visit two other churches. 

Yemrehanna Kristos is a beautiful church with a macabre addition. (Bones of priests and pilgrims)

Swarms of bees inhabit Bilbila Giyorgis.  The honey is said to have special powers.

And as in previous excursions in North Ethiopia, “getting there is half the fun.”  

The scenery is inspiring and the children near the churches are curious and cheerful.  I hired one young boy as my “porter” up the mountain.  I always carry too much stuff.

For my videos on You Tube, search for “travelwithjan”

*Ethiopia.  Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. 2009. Pp 156-158.

Add new comment