The rock churches of Lalibela

by Abebe Tesfaw

Une Grande Nation (Issue IV/2017)


The Ethiopian rock church Bete Giyorgis. Photo: James Whitlow Delano/ laif

They don’t often see a sight like this because these buildings have very little in common with Christian houses of worship in Europe or the US. As the name would suggest, these rock-hewn churches really are made out of rock. At the end of the 12th century, servants of the Ethiopian emperor, Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, dug deep holes in the volcanic rock. They pulled out the resulting monoliths and the holes they left formed the inner rooms of the churches. When the building was finished, they decorated the walls by chiselling them. And if the emperor had had his way then the churches would have been the basis for his grand plan, to build a “new Jerusalem”.

At the time, an increasing number of Ethiopian Christians who made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem were falling victim to Saracen raids along the way. So Lalibela was supposed to be a more secure place for the pilgrims, inside their own homeland. The church you can see in this picture is the Bete Giyorgis, or the Church of Saint George in English. It is about 12 meters tall and has been hewn out of the rock in the shape of a cross. And to this day it has remained one of the most beloved spots for Orthodox Ethiopian Christians. I come here a lot myself actually. And not just because I am bringing tourists here but also because I like to meet my friends and acquaintances here for prayer. Sometimes we do run into visitors who are smoking inside the churches, or walking about with their shoes on. We usually shoo them away. 

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