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Painted on the wall of Beit Maryam (House of Mary) is a picture of two women sitting side by side, babies on their laps and one of the women busily spinning yarn. They are the Queen of Sheba in her royal apparel and her handmaid. The legend of Lalibela – indeed the legendary history of Ethiopia – begins with the Queen of Sheba and her visit to King Solomon. He fathered a son to the queen and another to her handmaid. Ethiopia’s first king, Menelik, was borne by the queen. Sheba’s handmaid gave birth to a son who headed the powerful Zagwe dynasty, which ruled the area around Roha, as Lalibela was then called. The later name comes from a man of the Zagwe line who was responsible for the carving of these churches.

Lalibela was the younger brother of Harbay, a ruling king of the Zagwe dynasty in Roha. His mother is said to have seen bees swarming around her second son soon after his birth. She named him Lalibela, meaning “he who has seen bees” in Ge’ez, Ethiopia’s liturgical language and Africa’s only indigenous written tongue. In Ethiopian folklore, bees are messengers of greatness, social advances, and riches.

As the younger brother matured, Harbay felt threatened by these foretellings about his brother. He tried to poison Lalibela, but the poison merely put him into a deathlike sleep for three days. During that time, an angel carried Lalibela’s soul to heaven to show him the churches he was to build. When he returned to a waking state, Lalibela retreated into the wilderness and, upon God’s order, took a wife named Maskal Kebra, or Exalted Cross.

The king is said to have abdicated in favor of his brother by the order of Christ Himself. Lalibela accepted the rule and made his monastic existence even more austere. He then began constructing the churches revealed to him in his vision. “Upon the command of God and with the aid of His angel servants,” stone masons completed the entire religious complex in 24 years. He had turned the stark territory of Roha into a prayer writ large in stone.

Time seems to have stopped in Lalibela, and nature there defies expectations. Flowers bloom in the waterless soil. The River Jordan, a stream that bisects the village, puts out a persistent trickle despite the ravages of nature that lay drought upon the land. Without electricity even for light, stone huts give meager shelter from the cold that strikes this altitude at night. In surrounding fields, peasants labor with hook ploughs and oxen to deliver whatever fruits the rock hewn soil with bear. Above all, Lalibela is quiet, following a respect for the silence of the surrounding mesas and wide skies that thousands of Coptic monks and priests have venerated for centuries.

Beit Maryam is considered the most sacred shrine of Lalibela. The church is cruciform, with its sacred antechambers designed so that prayer is directed toward Jerusalem. Its justifiably admired frescoes, mostly depicting scenes from the New Testament, adorn smooth stone strips near the ceiling. In the Annunciation scene, a lovely Virgin of yellowish-brown color looks with astonishment toward the angel. She spins with a spindle still used by Ethiopian women.

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Tags: Ethiopia Christianity Pilgrimage/pilgrims Architecture Lalibela