Lalibela: The Ethiopian City of 11 Mysterious Stone Churches

The oldest Christian country in the world is home to a truly awe-inspiring mystery. Did an army of angels create these ancient structures?

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Posted in , Dec 27, 2020

An artist's rendering of Ethiopian angels creating Lalibela; Illustration by Edson Ike

Sunday night, I was thinking about making dinner when the phone rang.

“Turn on CBS,” a voice said.

“What?”

Click. The caller hung up.

No, it wasn’t code or a message from heaven. It was just my mom. She sometimes made calls like that when she was watching something on live TV that she didn’t want me to miss but had no time to explain because she didn’t want to miss a minute of it herself. I turned on CBS.

Once I did, I understood the urgency. How was it possible that I never heard of the miracle being discussed on this news program? A medieval wonder that is known as Lalibela.

Lalibela is a small town in the highlands of northern Ethiopia, a country that’s been Christian since 330 A.D., making it the oldest Christian country in the world. It is also home to a truly awe-inspiring mystery: a series of 11 churches like no other, all built without bricks, mortar, lumber or concrete. Each is carved from a single stone.

The churches are not so much built as dug into the landscape on either side of a small stream called the Jordan. They are carved into a rocky massif—that is, a compact group of small mountains—about 8,250 feet above sea level. The massif was created by ancient eruptions and is primarily composed of two kinds of volcanic basalt. The volcanic rock was turned red by iron deposits. Gases trapped inside made it light and good for carving. First the perimeter of the church was carved out, creating a giant solid block. The churches were then carved from the top down, working into the porous rock.

Historians date the building of the churches to the early thirteenth century. But who made them? There is no official record of how the churches came to be. No newsreels or photos, needless to say. There are a few theories. Some people believe that the churches were created by the Christian crusaders known as the Knights Templar, who were very powerful at that time, but there is no evidence of their involvement though much of their deeds have been documented.

The second theory is more plausible, at least in terms of who was responsible for the building. Perhaps the churches were created at the direction of King Lalibela, who was the emperor of Ethiopia from the end of the twelfth century to the beginning of the thirteenth. Ethiopia already had a long history of Christianity by then. According to tradition, the religion was introduced by two shipwrecked Christian boys who were enslaved by the royal court of King Ezana. The boys eventually converted the monarch, who spread the gospel throughout his kingdom.

        The Coptic cross adorning the rock-hewn
        church of Biete Ghiorgis is visible only
        from above.

The Christian King Lalibela traveled 1,600 miles to see the holy city of Jerusalem in 1187, during the Crusades. Soon after he returned home, Jerusalem fell under Muslim control. Lalibela wanted to create a new Jerusalem for Christians. He ordered his people, called the Zagwe, to build churches along a stream, which he renamed the River Jordan, to welcome Christians who did not want to be in a Jerusalem controlled by Muslims.

This theory offers the beginning of an answer to the “who” question, but what about the “how”? A single medieval construction tool—an axe shaped tool called an adze—is displayed at the site. It’s hard to imagine that this small cutting tool creating the giant churches of Lalibela, an architectural feat comparable to the pyramids of ancient Egypt.

Most of the people at Lalibela spend little time thinking about these theories. They are dismissed by one group in particular—the 50,000 pilgrims who make their way on foot to Lalibela every Christmas. These religious travelers know who made King Lalibela’s dream of a New Jerusalem a reality: angels. An army of angels, they say, created Lalibela. Some hold that the angels made the 11 churches all in one night.

The churches line both shores of King Lalibela’s River Jordan, and each is four stories tall. On the north side are Biete Medhani Alem (House of the Savior of the World), Biete Mariam (House of Mary), Biete Maskal (House of the Cross), Biete Denagel (House of Virgins) and Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael). On the south side are Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of Saint Mercoreos), Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos), Biete Gabriel Raphael (House of Gabriel Raphael) and Biete Lehem (House of Holy Bread).

The eleventh church, Biete Ghiorgis (House of Saint George), is set at a distance from the others, on the north side of the Jordan, but connected by a system of trenches. The largest church, Biete Medhani Alem, covers 8,000 square feet.

Engineers believe that the builders began each church by digging a trench around what would become the perimeter of the structure and then started digging downward. Working in the darkness below ground, they carved doors and tunnels as they went along.

They also sculpted archways, vaults and columns, just like in traditional churches. Though since the churches at Lalibela were carved from the top down, they didn’t need columns or archways to hold up the ceiling as in freestanding buildings.

Each church has its own unique treasures. Biete Golgotha Mikael holds the tomb of King Lalibela himself, with the figure of Saint Peter etched into the wall of the rock. Biete Mariam has a fresco of the Star of David on the underside of an arch inside the church. Biete Ghiorgis is shaped like a cruciform and topped with an etched Coptic cross that can only be seen from above.

Christmas in Ethiopia, a country that follows the Julian calendar, is celebrated on January 7 of the Gregorian calendar (the one we’re more familiar with), and the holiday is known as Genna. Some pilgrims walk days or even months to get to Lalibela, in order to show their devotion to God. At the stroke of midnight, Christmas Mass is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, as priests rattle sistrums, palm-size instruments that date from Old Testament times. Pilgrims not only fill the churches, but they also pack the tunnels that join them and stand scattered on the surrounding hills.

All night long they chant and sing. Tsigie Selassie Mezgebu, the head priest of Lalibela, explains that their chants declare, “God became human and a human became God. Because of Christ, we went from being punished by God to being his children again. Christmas is the day that forgiveness was born.”

The gathering of countless pilgrims at the site, as well as the natural elements, have taken their toll over the last 900 years. Today the World Monuments Fund is working to repair the parts of the churches that need it most, but just as the creation of Lalibela was exceptional, so the repairs must be. The stone can’t simply be cut and replaced, because all of it has been touched by angels. If masons need to drill into the stone to add a pin for stability, they must first ask permission from the priests. The dust from the drilling is preserved as sacred. The fund is now teaching the priests of Lalibela how to protect the churches from further damage, so that people can continue to worship where angels worked some 900 years ago.

My mom knew my interest in the work of angels, whether they were from the beginning of time or just yesterday. Her no-nonsense phone message was, as usual, one that I was glad I didn’t let pass me by.

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