Once the thriving and populous capital city of medieval dynasty, Lalibela, is the 8th wonder with its 13 rock-hewn churches cut out of a solid red volcanic rock. Some of the churches lie almost completely hidden in deep trenches, while others stand in open quarried caves. A complex and bewildering labyrinth of tunnels and narrow passageways with offset crypts, grottoes and galleries connects the churches.
Legend has also it that Lalibela was built by angels armed with masonry tools. No one knows the true story of how these churches came to be. Archaeologists say it would have required the work of 40,000 men to carve the labyrinths of grottoes, courtyards, caverns, and walls out of the mauve-colored rock.
Physically raised from the rock in which they stand, these towering edifices seem to be of superhuman creation in scale, workmanship and concept. A complex and bewildering labyrinth of tunnels and narrow passageways with offset crypts, grottos, and galleries connects them all. Throughout this mysterious and wonderful settlement, priests and deacons go about their timeless business, scarcely seeming aware that they are living in what has become known as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Seeing all the Lalibela churches, which are cut out of soft red volcanic tuff, takes a long time, but it is well worth it.
The churches are actually divided into two main groups — one to the south the other to the north of a stream run locally as the Jordan River .
The first group of churches lie in their rock cradles one behind the other north of river. They are six in number: Bet Glogotha, Bet Mika’el (also known as Bet ~ Sina), Bet Maryam, Bet Meskel, Bet ghel, and Bet Medhane Alem.
The first church most travelers visit is Bete Mehedhane Alem, the largest of all the churches. Taking the form of a Greek temple, ii is unusual in being totally surrounded by square-shaped columns, with a further forest of twenty-massive rectangular columns supporting the roof inside. In a corner of the church, one can see three empty graves said to have been symbolically dug for the biblical personages of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
A few minutes’ walk from Bet Medhane is Bet Maryam, which stands in a spacious courtyard. It is the most beloved not only of the Lalibela clergy, but also of the many pilgrims streaming into its courtyard on holy days. Legend says that King Lalibela also favored this church above all, and attended mass there daily. A ‘box’ of the royal family of Lalibela is still shown on the western wall of the courtyard opposite the main entrance.
A deep square pool in the courtyard is said to have miraculous properties, and infertile women dip themselves in the algae-covered waters at certain times of the year, particularly at Christmas.
Dedicated to Mary, the mother of Christ, this church is alone amongst the Lalibela monoliths in that it has a projecting porch. The remains of early unusual frescoes can be seen on the ceiling and upper walls, and there are many elaborately carved details on the piers, capitals, and arches.
In the northern wall of the Bet Maryam courtyard is the excavated chapel of Bet Meskel. It is a broad gallery, with a row of four pillars dividing the space into two aisles spanned by arcades. One spandrel between two arches contains a relief cross beneath stylized foliage, a decorative motif often found in Lalibela. Bet Meskel also contains several large caves, some of them inhibited by hermits.
The chapel was constructed in honour of maidens martyred Julian the Apostate, who ruled Rome in the mid-fourth century, the time Christianity was first brought Axum . It is said that fifty young maidens, and novices, who lived a pious life under the supervision of their abbess Sofia Edessa (present-day Turkey ), were ordered to be killed by Julian when he passed through the town and learned of the nunnery. The abbess and her young maidens were beheaded. This tiny chapel in the mountains of Ethiopia helps keep alive the memory of their modest contemplative life and their last moment of bravery in professing their Christian faith.
A tunnel at the southern end of the Bet Maryam courtyard leads to the interconnected churches of Bet Golgotha and Bet Mika’el, which, together with the Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam, form the most mysterious complex in Lalibela. Its holiest shrine, the Selassie chapel, is housed here, and — according to the whispers of the priests perhaps even the tomb of King Lalibela himself. It is likely that some of the most beautiful processional crosses of Lalibela will be shown to you here. One, a very rich and elaborate metal cross, black with age and decorated with inlaid circles, is said to have belonged to King Lalibela.
While the ancient entrance to this group was probably from the west, passing the hollowed block of the Tomb of Adam, the Courtyard is now entered from the south, being connected by the trench leading off the Bet Maryam church. A side door leads to the first church, Bet Mika’el, which is considered a twin church of the more northern Bet Golgotha. Two windows in the southern wall of Bet Golgotha give light to two shrines — the right-hand one to the Selassie Chapel and the one on the left to the ‘Iyesus Cell’ (Cell of Jesus), located at the east end of the right-hand nave of the church proper. Not far from the ‘tomb of Christ’ — an arched recess in the north-east corner of the church — is a movable slab set into the floor, said to cover the most secret place of the holy city: the tomb or crypt of King Lalibela.
Bet Golgotha , although simple in its architecture, houses some of the most remarkable pieces of early Christian Ethiopian art: figurative reliefs, rare elsewhere in the country. The ‘tomb of Christ’ displays a recumbent figure in high relief with an angel in low relief above its head. The figures of seven saints, mostly larger than life, decorate arched niches in the walls.
A doorway at the east end of the right-hand nave of Bet Golgotha opens on to the Selassie Chapel, a place of greatest sanctity that is rarely open even to the priests, and very few visitors have been permitted to enter it. The shrine is completely imprisoned in the rock and features three monolithic altars. The central altar displays a relief decoration of four winged creatures with hands raised in prayer, ought to be representations of the Four evangelists.
The simple but impressive Tomb of Adam is a huge square block of stone, which stands in a deep trench in front of the western face of Bet Golgotha. The ground floor of this hollowed-out block serves as the western entrance to the first group of churches, and the upper floor houses a hermit’s cell.
The group south of the Jordan River comprises four churches: Bet Amanuel, Bet Merkorios, Bet Abba Libanos, and Bet Gibriel-Rufa’el.
Bet Amanuel, the finest of the group, its elaborate exterior much praised art historians. Its walls imitate the alternate projecting and recessing walls of an Axumite building. The structure contains a large hall with four pillars, and its windows, which are irregularly placed, are also Axumite in style. A spiral staircase leads up to an upper storey. The most striking interior feature is the double frieze of blind windows in the vaulted nave, the lower frieze being purely ornamental and the upper one consisting of windows alternating with decorated areas. In the rock floor of the southern aisle a hole opens into a long, subterranean tunnel leading to neighboring Bet Merkorios.
Chambers and cavities for sacred bees in the outer wall of the courtyard are a reminder of the bees that prophesied kingship to Lalibela. Some of the chambers, however, are the graves of monks and pilgrims who wanted to be buried in this ‘holy city’. In this outer wall two further underground passages have been discovered leading to Bet Merkorios.
Bet Merkorios, partially collapsed and recently restored, is thought to have originally served a secular purpose —perhaps that of a house of justice, as amongst the secular objects found in recently excavated trenches were shackles for the ankles of prisoners. The Lalibela clergy only much later turned it into a The naked walls of Bet Merkorios were once covered with rich paintings on cotton fabrics, which were .J to the walls by a thick layer of ox blood, and straw.
Bet Abba Libanos, which is separated from the surrounding land on only three sides, is a structure of great charm and a good example of a cave church. It resembles Bet Amanuel in that its walls are chiseled in Axumite style.
It is suspected that Bet Gabriel-Rufa’el was also not originally intended to serve as a church, largely because of its disorientation and unusual plan. The labyrinthine floor plan features three angular halls with pillars and pilasters that are squeezed between two courtyards. The most impressive part of the church is the monumental façade. Although usually entered from the top of the rock near Bet Amanuel in the east by a small bridge of logs leading over the central trench, you may also approach from the east by a series of small tunnels, a gallery-like passage and another log bridge ten metres (33 feet) above the courtyard. From the north a path leads from the outer trench to a narrow chiseled-out ridge of rock called the ‘path to heaven’. This in turn leads up steeply to the roof of the church, although there is no entrance from this point.
Also to the north of the Jordan, but much further to the west, and somewhat isolated from the others, is the remarkable church of Bet Giyorgis , possibly the most elegant of all the Lalibela structures. It is located in the south-west of the village on a sloping rock terrace. In a deep pit with perpendicular walls, it can only be reached through a tunnel, which is entered from Some distance away through a trench.
Legend says that when King Lalibela had almost completed his churches, he was severely reproached by Saint George —who in full armor rode up to him on his white horse — for not having constructed a house for him. Lalibela thereupon promised the saint the most beautiful church, and Saint George apparently supervised the execution of the works in person, as attested by the fact that the monks today still show the hoof marks of his horse to visitors.
Standing on a three-tiered plinth, Bet Giyorgis is shaped in the form of a Greek cross, and has walls reminiscent of Axumite architecture. The church also has an elaborately shaped doorway.
There are several other rock churches within a day’s journey of Lalibela. Keep in mind that access to them often requires long walks and stiff climbs or rides by mule. They include Yemrehanna Krestos, six hours by foot and mule to the northeast of Lalibela, a remarkably beautiful structure built (not excavated) in typical Axumite style within a cave; Arbatu Entzessa, southwest of Yemrehanna Krestos and detached from the rock on only two sides; Bilbila Giyorgis, west of Arbatu Entzessa, only the façade of which is visible; and Sarsana Mika’el, which is detached on three sides. Also of interest is the church of Ashetan Maryam, located in the mountain high above the town, with an impressive view of the surrounding countryside, Na’akuto La’ab, a veritable jewel of a church built in a cave and Ukre Mestale Christos near Sekota, where the mummified remains of several wag-shums — former rulers of Wollo — are to be found.
After visiting the churches, many visitors have written praise to this unique wonder of the world. Alvarez, the first European to visit Lalibela in 1520 wrote
”I swear by God, in his power I am, that all that is written is the truth and there is much more than I have already written, and I have left it that they may not tax me with its being false hood.”
This type of churches is not found elsewhere in the world. With their amazing intricacy, and with some of the churches hewn out of one block of rock, even Ethiopians get overwhelmed at the sight, even though there are more than 400 rock hewn churches built before and after Lalibela especially in the northern part of the country. But the Lalibela churches are truly unique.
In the carving of the 11 rock hewn churches St. Lalibela is often thought to have had some supernatural force helping him. Otherwise, who could he have managed to make the dream come true? There was no slave labour in Ethiopia and there were no skilled crafts men either. So, who did help him with all that construction? If we assume that foreigners helped him, why is there no evidence of such help and why are the churches unique to Lalibela? Series of questions can be raised but their answers are not easy to find.
Courtesy: Spectrum Guide To Ethiopia, CAMERIAPIX