I remember watching one of my favorite travel TV shows over the summer, “Departures”, as the hosts journeyed through Africa. When reaching Ethiopia, the two came upon an amazing legacy of the ancient Christian world; the stone churches of Lalibela. Carved directly out of mountains and rocky hills, these fantastic structures are not merely site-seeing magnets but serve as functioning houses of worship for priests and villagers in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. I had heard of the monoliths before, even seen pictures, and so I was instantly intrigued by the further illumination of their story.
The churches were built in the late 12th and early 13th century during the reign of Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela in the town of Roha, Lalibela as it was originally called. After witnessing the beauty of Jerusalem and later receiving news of it’s capture by Muslims in 1187 A.D., Lalibela attempted to build his own “new” Jerusalem in response.
Taking advantage of the surrounding mountainous environment as well as using the names and symbolic imagery of Israel’s holy city, Lalibela had his artisans chip, cut and shape the churches with an often times otherworldly architectural flair. This resulted in a stream of European explorers making the trek to Ethiopia to gaze upon the church’s exquisite craftsmanship and design, which they were surprised to learn was entirely realized by a medieval Ethiopian society.
If you decide to travel to Lalibela, the churches are arranged into four groups; North, West, East and the final district with its monastery of Ashetan Maryam and Yimrehane Kristos church, which is built in the confines of a cave. Other notable buildings include the Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), and Biete Giyorgis (Church of Saint George), the most famous and best preserved church. Check them all out in person or from our friend the armchair. Either way, keep on exploring!