The Incredible Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia
In the heart of Ethiopia is situated one of its holiest towns, known as Lalibela, where a group of eleven monolithic rock-hewn churches stand. They are the biggest monolithic temples in the world, and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, yet much mystery still surrounds their construction.
The age of these buildings is unknown, but legends mention that they were excavated during the reign of Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, who ruled Ethiopia at the beginning of the 13th century AD. His name means ‘the bees recognize him as a king’. However, David Phillipson, professor of African archeology at Cambridge University, has proposed that the churches of Merkorios, Gabriel-Rufael, and Danagel were initially carved out of the rock half a millennium earlier, as fortifications or other palace structures in the waning days of the Axumite Kingdom, and that Lalibela's name simply came to be associated with him after his death.
Unique monolithic rock-hewn Church of St George, Lalibela, Ethiopia. Credit:Dmitry Chulov / BigStockPhoto
All eleven churches are arranged in two groups and are connected with passageways 11 meters (36 feet) deep. The largest church, the house of Medhane, stands at a height of 10 meters (33 feet), and is 33 meters (108 feet) long and 22 meters (72 feet) wide.
According to legends, an angel came and asked Lalibela to build the churches. Men and angels worked together to construct them, the men working through the day and the angels working through the night. The churches were hewn out of solid rock from top to bottom, excavated externally and internally, and carved in different styles.
One of the churches, the Bet Giorgis, was devoted to Saint George and, supposedly, the Saint overlooked the building of this church, directing its very construction.
The Church of Emmanuel at Lalibela, Ethiopia. Credit: Sylvainn / BigStockPhoto
Legends claim the churches were built in 24 years, however, archaeologists consider this impossible. Even today, accomplishing this work using carbon steel tipped chisels & diamond blades would be remarkable. There are also many other peculiarities about its construction, such as the fact that the massive amount of stone and earth that would have had to be removed from around the churches and from their hollowed out interiors, was nowhere to be found.
Inside Bet Madhane Alemm rock hewn church in Lalibela, Ethiopia. Credit: Trevkit / BigStockPhotos
Lalibela is an extraordinary place to visit and offers something unique that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The excavation of such wondrous buildings raises many important questions such as: How were the buildings carved using simple tools? Where was the excavated stone and earth carried to? How were the stones carried away? Where did the accounts of ‘angels’ originate? And, why were these remarkable buildings constructed in the first place? The answers to these, and many more questions, are yet to be determined.
Featured image: Unique monolithic rock-hewn Church of St George, Lalibela, Ethiopia. Credit:Dmitry Chulov / BigStockPhoto
By John Black