Seeing the rock-hewn churches of Lalibeli has been on my “Must See” list for a very long time. I remember reading about the churches in high school when I stumbled across a book on unusual ancient architecture. Then, while watching an episode of Ancient Aliens, I was reintroduced to them and vowed to make a point of seeing them. I was not disappointed!
The small town of Lalibela is best known for the 11 monolithic churches that were chiseled out of the basalt bedrock of the region. In the 12th century, when Muslim conquests put a stop to Christian pilgrimages to the holy land, King Lalibela set out to construct a “New Jerusalem” in Ethiopia.
The churches are unusual because instead of being built above ground they are literally carved down into the rocky terrain itself. At the time, there was an ongoing threat of takeover by Muslim forces – being built below eye level afforded the worshippers a greater chance that their churches would go unseen by invading forces. Legend says the churches were built in 23 years. To accomplish this, humans worked on them during the day and angels took over at night.
There are two main groups of churches – to the north: Biete Medhani Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), Biete Mariam (House of Mary), Biete Maskal (House of the Cross), Biete Denagel (House of Virgins), Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael). To the south: Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercoreos), Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos), Biete Gabriel Raphael (House of Gabriel Raphael), and Biete Lehem (House of Holy Bread). The eleventh church, Biete Ghiorgis (House of St. George), is isolated from the others, but connected by a system of trenches.
Lalibela continues to be a sacred place for Ethiopian Christians, still a place of pilgrimage and devotion to this day.