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Lalibela – rock churches

Bet Medhane Alem church, Lalibela. The largest rock hewn church in the world! ©Andrzej Zarzecki

After the fall of the Kingdom of Axum, the kings from the Zagwe dynasty transferred their residence to Lalibela, the south-east of Axum. There, they erected a flourishing and densely-populated capital city, the residence of their Middle Age dynasty. Lalibela, previously known as Roha, was called in this manner to commemorate the King of Lalibela from the end of 12th century. The city was established as New Jerusalem. In that historical period, travelling on pilgrimages to proper Jerusalem was impossible, because the lands between Jerusalem and Ethiopia had been conquered by Muslims.

Ethiopia Travel. Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos) is an underground rock-cut monolith Orthodox church located in Lalibela, Ethiopia. It was built during the Kingdom of Axum. It is part of UNESCO World Heritage Site at Lalibela. ©Andrzej Zarzecki
Bet Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos) ©Andrzej Zarzecki

The churches of Lalibela leave no one disinterested. These intriguing edifices have in their entirety been forged out in a homogeneous lump of red volcanic tuff. They seem to be absolutely unreal and created by some kind of a superhuman power. Rock temples might be admired in different places in the world, but it is solely here that not only the internal space, but also facades and external walls have been forged out. The churches of Lalibela are referred to as the least known of the eight miracles of the world, and they full deserve that name. The buildings are in their entirety forged out in rock, and, simultaneously, completely separated from that. In the subsequent centuries, Lalibela was gradually decreasing in importance, so as to become a small village.

For those unaware of its existence, this place situated at the foothills of the mountain called Abuna Yosef, which is practically inaccessible. It is only approaching rock church really close that makes it possible to judge exceptional character. Monolithic Saint George’s Church, having the characteristic shape of the Greek cross, evokes admiration. The largest church is Bet Medhane Alem, and it is 33 meter long, 23 meter wide and 11.5 meter high. The king of Lalibela employed 40 thousands of workers to excavate it. A legend has it that the workers were labouring throughout a day, and at night their work was continued by Angels with doubled strength.

Why were these churches not erected of stone, in a more ordinary manner? The answer to this question has remained unknown until today. One of the hypotheses claims that such a manner of constructing safeguarded them against ending up destroyed in the case of the invasion of enemies. New Jerusalem does not offer only rock churches, but also underground dark corridors, on which the footsteps of deacons are still to be heard…,

“Seeing is believing”!


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