Lalibela: Sacred Spaces from Another World

Monday, February 15, 2010 | Lalibela, Ethiopia

Early morning worshipers overflow the dawn service at the Church of St. George, one of Lalibela's spectacular rock-hewn churches.
The Seven Olives Hotel rests on a hillside overlooking the town of Lalibela, in north-central Ethiopia. Jacqueline parked herself there for two days, relaxing and reading on the terrace beside our room, taking three meals a day at the restaurant, and generally trying to forget about her long ordeal with the fleas. Having sworn off all further visits to Ethiopian monasteries, churches, chapels, and cathedrals, she stayed behind each morning when I set out to explore Lalibela's main attraction: the famous rock-hewn churches.

In the late twelfth century, present-day Lalibela was known as Roha, and was ruled by a king named Lalibela, who commissioned the construction of 11 very unusual churches. Speculation surrounds his motivations. Some say he was inspired by a command from on high, or a desire to give Ethiopian pilgrims an alternative destination while the Crusades menaced Jerusalem, or to create worship
sites impervious to the swords of local Muslim raiders.

Whatever his reasons, King Lalibela ordered the churches to be carved by hand from the red rock of Roha's hillsides. Today, all 11 churches still stand, and have received well-deserved recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

* * *

On our first morning in Lalibela, our driver Yoseph roused his friend Kassahun (a local tour guide) from bed to lead me through the churches. We spent the morning at the northern cluster of six churches—Biet Medhane Alem, Biet Mariam, Biet Golgotha, Biet Mia'el, Biet Danaghel, Biet Meskel—and the stand-alone Biet Gyorgis, or Church of St. George. Kassahun explained the history as we walked from church to church, pausing to take our shoes on and off at each doorway.

The architecture of every church was unique. Murals of Biblical scenes adorned the walls and ceilings of some. Their capacities ranged from a few individuals to a few dozen—tightly packed, I estimated, after seeing the large crowds of worshipers exiting the morning's services. Inside each church, a few of the faithful had stayed behind to continue praying, and small clusters of European tourists floated in and out. A men's prayer group chanted psalms in a wide courtyard. In every church, a priest stood beside the altar, showing visitors the brass, silver, or gold cross unique to each sanctuary.

In Kassahun's company, no architectural detail near any church lacked purpose, and every feature pulsed with symbolism. A single column represented Christ; three was the Holy Trinity. Two opposing windows signified heaven and hell, chiseled ovals were angels' eyes. Four nondescript figures in a frescoe symbolized the Gospels, and twelve of anything always represented the twelve Apostles. A crack on a wall was the River Jordan, a recessed pool the flood that carried Noah's ark, and a series of cup-shaped indentations the hoof prints of St. George's steed.

* * *

In late afternoon, once the midday heat had started to lessen, Kassahun walked me through the southern group of four churches. Biet Amanuel, Biet Mercurios, Biet Aba Libanos, and Biet Gabriel-Rufa'el were equally impressive (and equally replete with symbolism, of course) as the previous cluster. The evening's sunlight lent the chiseled red stone a rosy glow, like that in Petra.

Underneath the southern churches lay a warren of tunnels—also dug out of solid rock—providing the priests and monks with subterranean access to each sanctuary. Kassahun eagerly led me into one particularly long tunnel, which stretched about 15 meters (48 feet) through pure darkness, and included several boulders along the way.

As we walked, we spent much of the time discussing the mechanics and techniques of the churches' construction. At one point though, as we sat beside a church, swatting flies, Kassahun asked me why I had decided to come to Ethiopia. I hadn't considered the question recently—I just knew that Ethiopia was a place I wanted to visit. But suddenly a memory came back to me, of a day in my adolescence when my high school's librarian showed me a large, coffee-table-style book on the churches of Ethiopia, filled with black and white photos of the monks and the churches they had carved out of bare rock in Lalibela, Tigray, and other sites.

Both Kassahun and I smiled at the coincidence—that I had traveled here to the small town of his birth in part because of a collection of pictures I had encountered a decade earlier in my own hometown, a world away from the mountains of northern Ethiopia. As the believers say, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

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