The sunken churches of Lalibela

Church of St George

A small town in northern Ethiopia, Lalibela is named after a 12th Century king whose legacy is twelve Christian churches that have been carved out of solid granite.

King Lalibela was part of the Zagwe Dynasty, who ruled Ethiopia between about 1000ad and the 13th Century.  According to legend, Lalibela was a saintly person, and an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian who had visited Jerusalem, but found it occupied by Muslims, so wanted to build a New Jerusalem in Ethiopia.  Accordingly, many of the churches take their names, and the layouts, from buildings in Jerusalem.

The most unusual feature of all the churches is that they have not been cut into the granite above ground; these churches have been excavated out of the granite below ground, so that the roof of each church is at ground level.  To descend to each church is by steep and narrow sets of steps.

Each church was created by first carving out a wide trench on all four sides of the rock, then painstakingly chiselling out the interior. The largest church is over ten metres deep, so when you consider that the workers used only basic tools such as hammers and chisels, their achievement is remarkable.

The churches are connected by tunnels and walkways, some of which stretch across sheer drops. The interior pillars of the churches have been worn smooth by the hands of worshippers. These churches are not relics, but are still actively used by worship.  In fact, out of a population of about 10,000 who live near Lalibela, about 10% of those are priests.

One of the churches, the Bete Madhane Alem is believed to be the world’s biggest monolithic church.  Some of the churches are quite plain inside, whilst others are covered in carvings.

It is the custom to remove your shoes before descending into the churches, and it is advisable to get a local guide to escort you through the churches and to tell you about the history of each.

Lalibela is not quite on the tourist trail yet, but it is getting busier.  There is an airport near the town and Ethiopian Airlines has daily flights to the Capital Addis Ababa.  These flights can be frequently overbooked as Lalibela does attract many Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims and other Christians.  There is also a bus between Lalibela and Addis Ababa, but it is a two-day journey.

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