The rock churches of Lalibela are among the main attractions of any trip to Ethiopia. The stone monuments of faith belong since 1978 to the Unesco world cultural heritage.
The town looks inconspicuous and dusty. However, visitors will never forget what visitors discover as they wander around: churches made of rust-red tufa, and a labyrinth of tunnels, corridors, rock openings and bridges, all of which have the sole purpose of connecting the ancient houses of worship. It’s pure magic that awaits the stranger.
And at the latest, he will understand the Portuguese priest Francisco Alvarez, who wrote the following sentences at the beginning of the 16th century: “It is enough for me to write further about these monuments, because probably nobody will believe me.”
The miracle of Ethiopia
With these lines he wanted to make known the wonder of Ethiopia in Europe. Recognized by Unesco as a World Heritage Site in 1978, Labyrinth of Lalibela is still one of the highlights of every trip to Ethiopia. The unique: In Lalibela, the churches were carved out of the rock. They bear names like Bete Maryam, Bete Golgota or Bete Gyorgis. The latter is the youngest and, thanks to its Greek cross on the roof, a particularly popular photo destination for tourists. Prayer in Amhar means “house” or “church”.
2,500 meters above sea level, King Lalibela wanted to create a site for eternity in the 12th century. In 23 years he built eleven rock churches. Some sources speak of 40,000 people chiseling in the red, soft tufa – day and night.
The stone-carved churches are now divided into the eastern, western and northern groups. The churches in the east are supposed to embody the holy Jerusalem. “There are two traditions,” says tourist guide Girma Derbie: “First, the king is said to have wanted to visit and be buried in Jerusalem, and then God appeared to him in a dream and invited him to stay in Ethiopia and enter to build a new Jerusalem. ”
The second legend says that God led the king to Jerusalem in a dream, revealed to him the secrets of the holy places, and finally invited him to make a copy of it in his homeland. And there are indeed parallels: the small river of Yordanos, which only carries water in the rainy season, the places of Golgotha and Sinai, and tombs dedicated to Adam and Jesus.
The eleventh church, Bet Giyorgi (St. George’s Church), stands out as the most complete building in the Western group. It has the shape of a temple cross carved deep in the ground-level rocks. Its layout has the shape of three nested crosses.
After completion of the tenth rock church in Lalibela, St. George is said to have asked the king in his sleep to build a church for him. That’s how the Georgskirche came to be.
Magic powers: Gold Cross of Lalibela
At the center of the northern group is the church Bet Medhane Alem, which is said to be the largest monolithic church in the world. It served as a template for the church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum. Here also the gold cross of Lalibela is kept, to which magical powers are said to be. Illnesses are said to have been healed by mere touch of the Cross. And nearby is probably the oldest church in Lalibela, Bet Maryam, which is connected to Bet Medhane Alem.
In Lalibela, the rock-hewn churches have different shapes. So there are some whose rooms were not only driven into the facade of the rock face, but their block was then released. “They are then in a pit that we can look down on,” says 33-year-old Derbie, saying: “We certainly have the most beautiful churches in this construction style.”
It is certain that the construction was connected with huge effort. The blueprint had to be in the smallest detail. Each pillar, staircase and vault was modeled in the rock. First, the construction was constructed from top to bottom, then excavated the shaft forming the courtyard and later excavated the building.
Visitors can still see the decoration carved in rock or painted. It was applied directly to the stone, in the 16th century also on a plaster layer. Even later paintings were created on canvas.
New Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage
Lalibela is also called New Jerusalem and was the capital of the Kingdom of Ethiopia in the 12th and 13th centuries. Today, the place has 20,000 inhabitants. “98 percent are Orthodox Christians,” explains museum employee Tadesse Alemu. It is especially festive at Christmas, which is celebrated here on January 7th. “Then there are more than 10,000 pilgrims from all over the country, some of them running up to three weeks to attend.” Large sleeping berths are being set up around the churches.
“Everyone is welcome,” Alemu emphasizes and continues to enthuse: “At that time, it had to have been angels who worked twice a day on the churches.” It was only thanks to them that all the houses of worship could be completed in just 23 years. But even the king himself was not idle.
He should have tirelessly prayed for perfection. After completion, he was beatified by the Ethiopian church.
By Sabine Ludwid