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The Mysterious Rock Hewed Churches Of Lalibela

By: Amgad Refai
View ProfileI was holding my breath when the small Aircraft was ready to land at the small airport of Lalibela, Even I couldn't wait to have some rest in my hotel before I see the wonderful Churches of Lalibela. Its something I will not forget, walking in the village, and suddenly a stone cross raised from the ground, And before I wonder about it, my guide told me with very proud smile on his face 'This is the roof of Bet Giorgis ' and here, the story began.

In the 4th Century AD , 2 brothers from 'Tyre', St. Frumentius and Aedesius Introduced Christianity to Ethiopia at the time of King Ezana ( 303 - 350 AD) , and St. Fumentius considered the first Ethiopian Bishop.

The Ethiopian church followed the Coptic Church in Egypt till the Arab conquest in the 7th Century, when the Ethiopian church lost contact with any Christian neighbors. During the 12th century , the Patriarch of Alexandria appointed the Ethiopian Archbishop known as 'Abuna' who was always Egyptian Coptic Monk. 1929, when again Egyptian monk appointed 'Abuna', but four Ethiopian Bishops were also consecrated as his auxiliaries, till 1950 when Ethiopian 'Abyna' (Basil) was finally appointed, and in 1959 an autonomous Ethiopian Patriarchate was established.

The first European to describe Lalibela was Francisco Alvarez, who came to the holy city between (1521-1525), and amongst most of other travelers who used to visit the place after that, they used to call it ( New Jerusalem ).

The Original name of the place is Roha, which used to be the Capital of Zague dynasty for over 300 years , then named after the name of the legend King of Roha, and the last king of Zague dynasty 'King Lalibela '(1185-1225).

According to the Ethiopian legends, 'Lalibela' grew up in Roha, when his brother was the king, it said that the bees prophesied his great future ¹*. The king became jealous by those prophecies about his brother, tried to poison him, but the poison nearly cast Lalibela into death-like sleep for three days .During these three days an angel carried his soul to heaven to show him the churches which he was to build. Returned once more to earth he withdraw into the wildness, then took a wife upon God's command with the name of ' Maskal Kebra ', and flew with an angel to Jerusalem, Christ himself ordered the king to abdicate in favor of Lalibela, anointed king under the throne name ' Gebre Maskal' Lalibela, living himself an even more severe monastic life than before. Carried out the construction of the churches, angels worked side by side with the stone masons, and within twenty four years, the entire work was completed.

King Lalibela built 11 monolithic churches in Roha; he constructed them in his Capital, in the hope of replacing ancient Aksum as a city of Ethiopian preeminence. Restoration work in the 20th century indicates that some of the churches may have been used originally as fortifications and royal residence.

Labilela Church WindowThe churches were hewn out of solid rock (Entirely below ground level) in a variety of style, generally trenches were excavated in a rectangle , isolating a solid granite block , the block was then carved both externally and internally, then work proceeding from top downward.

The workers probably cut free an oblong block of stone by sinking a rectangular trench in the tuff, from this monolith the stone masons chiseled out the church, shaping the exterior and the interior, retaining stones for the columns, Pilasters and arches. The roof was probably decorated by the senior masons while they were waiting for the less skilled craftsmen to excavate the walls. At each level of excavation the finishing sculptural work may have accomplish the work inside, entry was gained through the uppermost row of windows which are usually open, and only rarely provided with fillings. The level of the proposed floor was reached first of all on the western side of the church in the area of the main entrance.

The excavation of such a great project poses a number of logistic problems, which might also be pondered when admiring the finished work. For example, where was the excavated stone and earth carried to?, How many thousands humans carries must have been employed?, How were the stones carried away? The answers of some of those questions need too many researches, and much work from Archaeologists.

The churches were arranged in two main groups , connected by subterranean passageways, one group, surrounded by a trench 11 meters deep, includes House of Emmanuel , House of Mercurios, Abba Libano , and House of Gabriel, all carved from a single rock hill. House of Medhane is the largest church, 33 meters long, 23 meters wide, and 10 meters deep. House of Giorgis, cruciform shape, is carved from a sloping rock terrace. House of Golgoth, and house of Mariam is noted for its Frescoes. The interiors were hollowed out into naves and given vaulted ceiling.

The paintings in the churches are all from later date , some originating in the 15th century, and some from 17th-18th century.


Medhane Alem

The churches of the first main group lie in their rock cradles one behind the other north of river Jordan. The whole complex may be divided into three smaller groups, Bet Medhane Alem in the east, The Bet Maryam group in the center, And the twin church Golgota Debre Sna with the Selassie chapel in the west. Each sub-Group has a courtyard of its own, while the whole complex is surrounded by deep outer trench.

But still the most important church of this group, is the Bet Maryam, and a legend says that king Lalibela himself favored this church above all, having attended mass there daily, a box of the Royal family of Lalibela is still shown on the western wall of the courtyard. And as well it's beloved for its beautiful paintings.


Bet Emanuel Church

South of River Jordan, a bastion of red tuff severed from the rock plateau in the north, east and south by a broad artificial outer trench, 11 meters deep. Another deep central trench cuts this area into two parts, leaving at its end a cone-shaped hill. The original function of this complex of churches not yet clarified, tow of them, Bet Emanuel and Bet Abba Libanos are planned as church, while the other two might be part of residence of Zague , and seems since the fall of the Zague, they became churches too .

The Bet Emanuel church considered to be the finest and most impressive church in this group with very nice paintings. And Bet Abba Lebanos connected to the legend that Lalibela's wife 'Maskal Kebra' with the help of angels, created this church in one night.


Bit georgis

The Bet Giorgis is isolated from the other two groups of churches, dedicated to the national saint of Ethiopia . It is located in the southwest of the village on a sloping rock terrace, in its deep pit with perpendicular walls can only be reached through a tunnel which is entered from some distance away through a trench. Small round caves and chambers have been found in the walls of the courtyard, graves for pious pilgrims and monks.

The legend about Bet Giorgis says that when King Lalibela had almost completed the churches , St. George on his white horse reproached Lalibela for not constructing house for him. Then Lalibela promised the saint the most beautiful church , and the legend says that St. George supervised the work in the church in person ²*.

No doubt that the church of Bit Giorgis is the most remarkable and special one amongst all other churches in Lalibela for its different elegant Architecture .

The churches of Lalibela designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978, and during the major holy day celebration it attracts thousands of pilgrims. The town also serves as a market centre for the Amhara people.

¹* Till now Ethiopians believe that bees in dream foretell greatness, and good future.
²* Monks today still show the hoof-mark of the horse to the visitors.

Amgad Refai
© Amgad Refai. Article used with permission.
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