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Churches Carved From Ethiopian Hills – The Mystery of Lalibela

The tiny village of Lalibela in Ethiopia is home to eleven mysterious churches, ancient holy sites for Coptic Christians.

Ethiopia’s Coptic Christians revere a tiny village in the north-central highlands. Its parched red earth forms difficult terrain for the thousands of pilgrims who trek here for major religious celebrations. They come to pray in the churches of Lalibela, which are carved, stroke by stroke, from a solid stratum of stone.

Some of Lalibela’s eleven churches are cut into vertical cliff face by widening an existing natural cave. The major churches, however, are monoliths, cut from one piece of stone. An elaborate trench system and deep stairwells are the entrances to these below-ground structures. They are part of the landscape, as if the faith they represent is literally carved out of the barren earth. Nowhere else in the world can this particular type of construction be found. Local priests talk of the divine design and construction of this “new Jerusalem,” completed with the help of angels.

The construction of churches from monolithic structures resembles an excavation. Archeologists believe that workers may have freed oblong blocks of stone by sinking a rectangular trench in the tuff. By a method of heating and cooling to crack the rock, stone masons chiseled out the churches. As they shaped the exterior and interior, they retained stone in place for columns, pilasters, beams, arches, and vaulted ceilings.

The execution of such a great project still baffles archeologists. Their questions make the aid of angels seem almost likely. One may wonder where the excavated earth and stone were carted off to. How many thousands of workers must have been recruited, organized, and employed to accomplish such a feat? How were such heavy stones lifted out of the deep, narrow trenches and carried elsewhere? How could this dry and sparsely populated area, which today can barely yield enough food for its current population of less than 2000, offer an adequate food supply for these workers? More certain is the knowledge that the churches were probably created during the late Zagwe period, between the tenth and thirteenth centuries.

The simplicity of stone, silence, and asceticism in Lalibela are symbols of Coptic faith. Priests like statues with silver cross in hand stand guard before sacred inner chambers. Hermits in ragged cloth hold tattered prayer books and speak to no one but God. At night, they retreat into the rock catacombs that have served as tombs for saints and priests. These shallow caves in the trenches surrounding the most sacred churches once bore relic bones. Now they house only an occasional tuft of straw, which softens the rock surface of a pious man’s bed. A hermit or monk sleeps here to bring himself closer to God.

The interiors of the churches are illuminated by shadowy sunbeams through narrow slits, crosses, and semicircles cut into the rock near their ceilings. In this dim light, one can read the legend of Lalibela written on the church walls. Pictures of saints carefully etched over 800 years ago color these cool halls.

Painted on the wall of Beit Maryam (House of Mary) is a picture of two women sitting side by side, babies on their laps and one of the women busily spinning yarn. They are the Queen of Sheba in her royal apparel and her handmaid. The legend of Lalibela – indeed the legendary history of Ethiopia – begins with the Queen of Sheba and her visit to King Solomon. He fathered a son to the queen and another to her handmaid. Ethiopia’s first king, Menelik, was borne by the queen. Sheba’s handmaid gave birth to a son who headed the powerful Zagwe dynasty, which ruled the area around Roha, as Lalibela was then called. The later name comes from a man of the Zagwe line who was responsible for the carving of these churches.

Lalibela was the younger brother of Harbay, a ruling king of the Zagwe dynasty in Roha. His mother is said to have seen bees swarming around her second son soon after his birth. She named him Lalibela, meaning “he who has seen bees” in Ge’ez, Ethiopia’s liturgical language and Africa’s only indigenous written tongue. In Ethiopian folklore, bees are messengers of greatness, social advances, and riches.

As the younger brother matured, Harbay felt threatened by these foretellings about his brother. He tried to poison Lalibela, but the poison merely put him into a deathlike sleep for three days. During that time, an angel carried Lalibela’s soul to heaven to show him the churches he was to build. When he returned to a waking state, Lalibela retreated into the wilderness and, upon God’s order, took a wife named Maskal Kebra, or Exalted Cross.

The king is said to have abdicated in favor of his brother by the order of Christ Himself. Lalibela accepted the rule and made his monastic existence even more austere. He then began constructing the churches revealed to him in his vision. “Upon the command of God and with the aid of His angel servants,” stone masons completed the entire religious complex in 24 years. He had turned the stark territory of Roha into a prayer writ large in stone.

Time seems to have stopped in Lalibela, and nature there defies expectations. Flowers bloom in the waterless soil. The River Jordan, a stream that bisects the village, puts out a persistent trickle despite the ravages of nature that lay drought upon the land. Without electricity even for light, stone huts give meager shelter from the cold that strikes this altitude at night. In surrounding fields, peasants labor with hook ploughs and oxen to deliver whatever fruits the rock hewn soil with bear. Above all, Lalibela is quiet, following a respect for the silence of the surrounding mesas and wide skies that thousands of Coptic monks and priests have venerated for centuries.

Beit Maryam is considered the most sacred shrine of Lalibela. The church is cruciform, with its sacred antechambers designed so that prayer is directed toward Jerusalem. Its justifiably admired frescoes, mostly depicting scenes from the New Testament, adorn smooth stone strips near the ceiling. In the Annunciation scene, a lovely Virgin of yellowish-brown color looks with astonishment toward the angel. She spins with a spindle still used by Ethiopian women.

Jutting out at the south of the Beit Maryam courtyard is the tiny chapel of Beit Danaghel, House of the Virgin Martyrs. Priests of this church connect its holiness to the honor of the fifty young maidens killed under Julian, son of Constantine the Great. Lalibela built this shrine in the far hills of Ethiopia to keep alive the memory of the maidens’ contemplative life of piety and of the last moment of bravery in professing their Christian faith.

Across the River Jordan and connected to the other churches by subterranean passages are four other churches surrounded by a 36-feet-deep trench. Beit Abba Libanos takes its name from Father Libanos, one of the most famous monastic saints in the Ethiopian Coptic Church. In this cave church, a mysterious light – probably from phosphorescent stone – shines day and night behind the altar which protects the “holy of holies,” the antechamber where Ge’ez scrolls of the New Testament are kept. Also carved from the same rock hill are Beit Emmanuel, Beit Mercurios and Beit Gabriel.

On a hill, away from all the other churches, is Beit Giorgis, the Church of Saint George. The most beautiful church in Lalibela, this cruciform monolith is cut from a sloped rock surface. Legend says the saint, who is well revered in Ethiopia, personally supervised execution of the work. Priests will still point out the hoof marks of his horse.

The largest church in Lalibela is Beit Medhane Alem (House of the Redeemer of the World). It is 109 feet long, 77 feet wide, and 35 feet deep. The other churches include Beit Debre Sina (House of Mt. Sinai), Beit Selassie (House of the Trinity), the Tomb of Adam, and Beit Golgotha, which contains Lalibela’s tomb.

Lalibela is not an easy destination, even for the most devout Coptic Christians who make a yearly pilgramage to this spot in the rugged mountains of Ethiopia. To them it is a place of miracles. For others, Lalibela is a warp in time, where gentle winds make a low drone, like bees, as they pass through the religious hive carved from the stony earth.

Lark Gould is a Boston writer who regularly travels throughout the Near East on journalistic assignments.

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