To Christians, Lalibela is the holy city of Ethiopia. In the beginning the town was known as Roha, eventually gleaming its name from its noteworthy ruler, Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela. From birth, Saint Gebre made an impact, with his mother telling all who would listen of the swarm of bees that surrounded him as baby. An event that she, and so many others, took as a sign of his future reign of Emperor of Ethiopia.
Built in the 12th and 13th Centuries, Lalibela is a remarkable place. Most remarkable of all are its 11 medieval monolithic churches, built uniquely from the top down and carved with such master craftsmanship from the very rock which surrounds them. Nowhere else in the world can such a number of rock-cut churches be found in one place, and the effect is one that leaves a lasting impression on all who venture to see them.
In the early hours of the mornings, trails of figures dressed in white emerge from the darkness and make their way down the ancient structures to the slow beat of traditional skin drums. A regular pilgrimage for the people, from both near and far, the churches attract between 80 000 and 100 000 visitors each year. A belief resonates in the Lalibela pilgrims that they share the same blessings as the pilgrims who travel to Jerusalem, making it a journey they must embark upon at least once in their lifetime. And they do. The faithful will walk for weeks to arrive at this holy place, even traversing the rugged mountain surroundings without shoes or sandals to ease their journey.
Perhaps one of the most important things about the Lalibela churches is that they are still in use. They are not ancient museums whose role remains in the past. Instead, they’re a living heritage, as every day of every week there is a service in all of the churches.
The layout and names of the major buildings of Lalibela, in northern Ethiopia, is widely accepted to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem. Saint Gebre was said to have seen Jerusalem with his own eyes, and attempted to build a new Jerusalem in his capital, in response to the capture of Old Jerusalem by Muslims in 1187.
The first European traveller to set eyes upon these impressive churches was the Portuguese explorer, Pêro da Covilhã. A Portuguese priest, who accompanied him, wrote in description of the churches:
“I weary of writing about these buildings because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more…”
Chiselled from the living rock, the churches in Lalibela seem to radiate with holiness of the people who live nearby, a population consisting completely of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. And even those who are not religious are lulled into silence by the holy aura that seems to vibrate from the chiselled creations around them.
Richard Pankhurst, a British academic with expertise in the study of Ethiopia wrote that “what is special about Lalibela (as every tourist knows) is that it is the site of eleven or so rock churches, not just one, and they are all with more or less a stone’s throw of each other.”
As monuments go, the rock churches of Lalibela are a distinct monument to the spirituality of its people, both in the Centuries they were built, and now. Their impressive architecture and rich cultural heritage have seen them entitled as an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978. And with a solid foundation of followers who breathe life into the ancient rock walls, there is arguably nothing comparable in the World to the Lalibela rock churches.
– Robin Porteous