A monk reads the bible in a cave in Lalibela. (photo: Sean Sprague)
View of St. George’s Church in Ethiopia. (photo: Dave Bartruff/CORBIS)
Little distinguishes Lalibela from other rural communities in the Lasta Mountains of Ethiopia’s north central highlands. Two-story homes, constructed of cobblestone and stucco — an architectural style as typical as it is unique to this region — cluster in and around Lalibela’s small center. A distant curtain of desolate rocky escarpments, interrupted only by vistas of sky, frames the town and the rolling countryside beyond it, most of which rises some 9,000 feet above sea level.
Far from any major urban center and roughly 300 miles north of the country’s bustling capital of Addis Ababa, Lalibela’s 10,000 residents carry on much as they have done for the past several hundred years.
Lalibela’s claim to fame lies just outside its quaint center, where, hidden from view, huddles a spectacular subterranean complex of 11 rock-hewn churches.
Each of these churches was carved meticulously from the mountainside’s red volcanic rock. The tallest among them rises 40 feet, but its roof barely reaches ground level. Dug deep into the rocky earth, the churches were excavated from below rather than built upward. The visitor reaches the complex treading on hewn stairs that descend to the carved trenches surrounding the churches. Tunnels and walkways connect the churches, allowing the visitor to move freely among them.
What is more, Lalibela’s churches remain active places of worship. For Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, the complex ranks among the holiest sites in the world and is home to a thousand ascetics, hermits and monks, men who find shelter in the shallow caves surrounding the churches. Every Christmas and Temqat — the Ethiopian commemoration of the baptism of Christ — as many as 50,000 pilgrims throng the small town, some traveling hundreds of miles on foot from distant parts of Ethiopia and beyond to attend the celebrations.
Facts about the complex’s construction are clouded by legend and controversy. Roha, as the town was once called, served as the capital of the Zagwe dynasty, a family of kings who ruled Ethiopia (from the Greek, meaning “land of burned faces”) from the 9th or 10th century until the late 13th century. The name of the capital was later changed to honor King Lalibela, who reigned for 40 years in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.
A devout Christian since childhood, King Lalibela is said to have been inspired by a heavenly vision in which he was ordered to construct a city of rock-hewn churches — a “new” Jerusalem to compensate for the original that had fallen to Islamic forces in 1187. The king assembled a massive crew of laborers, which included the best available masons and craftsmen in the world, to excavate the complex of 10 churches from the mountainside. His queen is credited for the 11th church, which she commissioned to honor her husband after his death.
According to some sources, the excavation of the churches required the labor of at least 40,000 people — an exceptionally high number — if the churches were to have been completed within the king’s lifetime, as is believed. It is little wonder then that tradition maintains angels assisted the laborers, working at night.
The churches display remarkably different architectural styles — something that has bewildered experts for decades. On a stroll through the maze of churches, the visitor encounters imposing fortresslike structures, classic basilicas and tiny chapels. Greek pillars support the edifices of some and delicately carved Arabesque windows adorn others.
Early archaeologists speculated that King Lalibela intended for this stylistic diversity, fashioning the complex as a sort of museum of church types. But recent evidence based on comparative analyses with other medieval Ethiopian structures suggests the king may not have been responsible for all the churches. The three earliest churches probably were constructed in the mid-seventh century as part of a fortified complex during the waning years of Ethiopia’s Aksumite civilization. Four additional churches may have been built in the 10th or 11th century.
Lalibela’s churches are grouped in two distinct clusters, separated by a river named after the Jordan. Most churches in the northwest cluster are monolithic structures surrounded by wide trenches and courtyards that give them the appearance of freestanding buildings. This style, which requires carving the building below ground from a single block of stone, occurs almost nowhere else in the world.
The churches located in the southeast cluster resemble other medieval rock-hewn structures in Ethiopia — sacred and secular — most of which were excavated on vertical cliffs around existent caves or gaps.
St. George’s, Lalibela’s most celebrated church, stands apart from the two clusters. The monolithic structure was carved in the shape of a Greek cross (with four arms equal in length), which one observes immediately looking down upon its flat roof.
The craftsmanship of those who excavated these churches astounds even the most well-traveled visitors. Precisely carved moldings and windowsills add to the illusion that they were constructed of composite materials like normal buildings.
But Lalibela’s legacy today is as much its role as an active holy site for Ethiopians as it is its awe-inspiring architecture.