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Ethiopia’s New Jerusalem

ONE Magazine’s Christopher Boland guides us through a wonder of the world

by Christopher Boland

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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.

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Tags: Ethiopia Ethiopian Orthodox Church Ethiopian Christianity Ethiopian Catholic Church Aksum