Did You Know: The Rock-Hewn Churches of Ethiopia

Did You Know: The Rock-Hewn Churches of Ethiopia
The landscape of Lalibela, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The medieval monolithic cave churches date back to the 12th century and are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site

Simrran Gill
May 19 , 2020
09 Min Read

Africa has a lot more to offer than just wildlife safaris. Take Ethiopia, for instance, which boasts of a heritage and cultural legacy dating back to the 'first men'. The country is on the global tourist map particularly because of the mountain town of Lalibela and its stunning rock-hewn churches. In the heart of this small town in northern Ethiopia are eleven spectacular churches that have been carved out of a single volcanic rock.  

 
 
 
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These medieval monolithic cave churches are said to be hewn on the orders of King Lalibela in the 12th century. The King aimed to create a ‘new Jerusalem’ for pilgrims and worshippers after Muslim conquests halted Christians from undertaking the holy pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Some also believe that King Lalibela was assisted by an army of angels to complete the structures.

 
 
 
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Today they are frequented by followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The walk to these structures is a long, hard one, including a climb up a rugged mountain. Narrow paths on this mountainous landscape connect all the structures. However, that does not deter the pilgrims who frequent the site for daily prayers, or for special ceremonies. Huge crowds gather here on holidays such as Christmas and Easter.  

Worshippers after the mass

 
 
 
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Built at the base of Mount Abuna Yosef, the main cluster of churches is divided into two groups, the northern and the southern. The northern ones, which lie to the north of the river Jordan, comprise of Biete Golgotha Mikael, Biete Mariam, Biete Denagel, Biete Maskal, and Biete Medhani Alem (also considered to be the largest monolith church on earth).

The southern group, lying to the south of river Jordan, comprises of Biete Lehem, Biete Gabriel Rafael, Biete Abba Libanos, Biete Amanuel, and Biete Qeddus Mercoreus.

A final church, that lies to the west of the southern group and is separated by the river, is Biete Ghiorgis. It is isolated from the others but connected by a system of trenches.

 
 
 
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The cross shaped windows permit light to enter the otherwise dusky structures

These churches were hewn from a single rock of monolithic blocks which were further chiselled out to form the doors, windows, roofs and other elements. The openings permit the sunlight to enter these otherwise dark interiors. From a distance, one can only spot people moving in and out of a dusty mountain. But inside these hollowed-out churches, where faith remains supreme, are worshippers clad in white either leaning against the walls while offering their prayers or quietly reading religious texts.

 
 
 
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The churches are cooler on the inside along with well laid-out carpets on the floor. The interiors are characterised by semi-circular arches, human figure carvings, and murals of vividly painted Biblical scenes on walls and ceilings. The complex structure of churches is connected by an extensive drainage system, some trenches and ceremonial passages, and pathways that connect the tombs, catacombs and store-rooms. 

Characterised by their artistic achievement, the almost 800-year-old gigantic structures have preserved age-old traditions as well as social practices. The most popular of these churches is Biete Ghiorgis. Set apart from the rest, it can be accessed by a downhill trek as it is situated a few feet below ground level. It is constructed in the shape of a giant cross which can be seen from above. 

 
 
 
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Around the churches is the Lalibela village which has traditional two-storey houses with thatched roofs, giving an insight into medieval and post-medieval civilisation of Ethiopia.


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