Churches Carved From Ethiopian Hills – The Mystery of Lalibela

by Lark Gould
photos by Ilene Perlman

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Ethiopia’s Coptic Christians revere a tiny village in the north-central highlands. Its parched red earth forms difficult terrain for the thousands of pilgrims who trek here for major religious celebrations. They come to pray in the churches of Lalibela, which are carved, stroke by stroke, from a solid stratum of stone.

Some of Lalibela’s eleven churches are cut into vertical cliff face by widening an existing natural cave. The major churches, however, are monoliths, cut from one piece of stone. An elaborate trench system and deep stairwells are the entrances to these below-ground structures. They are part of the landscape, as if the faith they represent is literally carved out of the barren earth. Nowhere else in the world can this particular type of construction be found. Local priests talk of the divine design and construction of this “new Jerusalem,” completed with the help of angels.

The construction of churches from monolithic structures resembles an excavation. Archeologists believe that workers may have freed oblong blocks of stone by sinking a rectangular trench in the tuff. By a method of heating and cooling to crack the rock, stone masons chiseled out the churches. As they shaped the exterior and interior, they retained stone in place for columns, pilasters, beams, arches, and vaulted ceilings.

The execution of such a great project still baffles archeologists. Their questions make the aid of angels seem almost likely. One may wonder where the excavated earth and stone were carted off to. How many thousands of workers must have been recruited, organized, and employed to accomplish such a feat? How were such heavy stones lifted out of the deep, narrow trenches and carried elsewhere? How could this dry and sparsely populated area, which today can barely yield enough food for its current population of less than 2000, offer an adequate food supply for these workers? More certain is the knowledge that the churches were probably created during the late Zagwe period, between the tenth and thirteenth centuries.

The simplicity of stone, silence, and asceticism in Lalibela are symbols of Coptic faith. Priests like statues with silver cross in hand stand guard before sacred inner chambers. Hermits in ragged cloth hold tattered prayer books and speak to no one but God. At night, they retreat into the rock catacombs that have served as tombs for saints and priests. These shallow caves in the trenches surrounding the most sacred churches once bore relic bones. Now they house only an occasional tuft of straw, which softens the rock surface of a pious man’s bed. A hermit or monk sleeps here to bring himself closer to God.

The interiors of the churches are illuminated by shadowy sunbeams through narrow slits, crosses, and semicircles cut into the rock near their ceilings. In this dim light, one can read the legend of Lalibela written on the church walls. Pictures of saints carefully etched over 800 years ago color these cool halls.

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Tags: Ethiopia Christianity Pilgrimage/pilgrims Architecture Lalibela