>>>Lalibela: Ethiopia’s Jerusalem
Photo: Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock

Lalibela: Ethiopia’s Jerusalem

The Lasta mountains conceal the monastic city of Lalibela, whose temples were cut out of volcanic rock, to emulate the Holy Lands on African soil.
dark-skinned hermit wearing a white tunic, with Bible in hand, emerges from a reddish cave dug into the mountain. It is dawn in North Ethiopia and the anchorite begins studying the sacred texts, in the warmth of the first rays of sun, with religious chants echoing in the background. In the 11 churches at Lalibela, dozens of priests hold orthodox rituals each day, before hundreds of loyal devotees who, after remaining prostrate during the ceremony, hug the columns and kiss the walls. The 11 churches of Lalibela, a monastic complex located 340 km north of the capital, Addis Abeba, were directly cut out of the rock of the mountain, below ground level.
The temples are built without mortar, as is the case with other ancient monuments whose construction is a mystery.
Photo: Pecal rateau / Shutterstock
The place is so overwhelming that Portuguese priest Francisco Álvarez, who visited it in 1521, dared not describe its majesty, for fear he would not be believed. In his tale, Prester John of the Indies, he confessed: “I will write no more of these marvels, since I wonder whether they will accuse me of falsehood.”
This sacred territory of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity was conceived by King Gebre Mesqel, known as Lalibela, as a symbolic representation of Jerusalem, in response to it having been taken over by Muslims. Set at an altitude of 2,630 m, and more than 10 m tall, the temples were chiselled into the rock of the mountains, around the year 1200.
King Lalibela was canonised by the Ethiopian church.
Photo: Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock.com

The Lalibela Cross

Weighing in at 7 kg of solid gold, it is the most prized relic in Ethiopia, and is kept at Biete Medhani Alem. When it was stolen in 1997, the people “beat their chests and tore out their hair” for the pain of the loss. Years later, it appeared in the luggage of an art merchant.

The River Yordanos, excavated in the rock, like the rest of the monastic city, divides Lalibela into two church complexes. The northern part is home to the largest monolithic church on the planet, Biete Medhani Alem, or the house of the saviour of the world. It is a reproduction of the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, which was located in the religious capital of Ethiopia, Aksum, and destroyed in 1535, by Muslim invaders.Those approaching Lalibela see nothing until they are literally standing over the monuments. The churches seem to directly “sprout up” from the stone, to which they are attached at the base and on one or more sides, always below ground level. Further below, under the temples, is a dark labyrinth of passageways, tunnels and caves, which connect 10 of the 11 churches
“Concealing” the churches below ground level may have been a ploy to avoid Muslim invasions, frequent at the time.
Photo: Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock.com
The paintings that cover the walls of some of them are now nearly invisible, unlike the obvious cracks. On entering the churches, pilgrims are met with naked walls and gloomy spaces, possibly illuminated by the flicker of the candle of a priest studying the Bible.How Lalibela was built remains a mystery. “Emptying out” the mountain to a level of 10 m deep, leaving enormous blocks standing, and then sculpting and chiselling them was not an easy task, and even less so in the 12th century. The legend assures us that the angels assisted in the chore: by day, they worked alongside the men, presumably slaves, and by night, they did double the work completed during the day.
Perhaps the angels’ contribution was another of the details the priest kept to himself when describing this African Jerusalem, for fear of being considered a fibber.

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