In the 12th century the king of Ethiopia decided to build a New Jerusalem. Eleven churches were carved out of solid rock on the mountain top in the village of Lalibela. A UNESCO World Heritage site, these churches remain intact and in use.
They were all carved from the rock top of the mountain down into the earth so that they remain invisible unless the person is only a few feet away. This protected them from the vision of potential invaders, usually Muslims from what is now Sudan. The above is probably the most photographed of these churches and stands separate from the others.
My friend is standing near where the stairs lead down to the bottom where visitors and worshippers can enter the church. Visiting all these churches in one day is not an activity for the faint of heart or for one terrified of heights.
This is the first church we visited. It still mystifies many as to how such incredibly intricate structures could me carved by hand out of solid stone. Even these columns are carved out of the rock. The “official” Ethiopian Orthodox Christian story relates how angels helped the builders.
This and most of the other churches are connected by “waterways” where in the rainy season a sophisticated system of drainage keeps all of them from flooding and makes it possible for visitors and worshippers to walk along from church to church.
Everything in the Christian churches in Ethiopia symbolizes something related back to Jerusalem and the Bible. Even though the guide explained it all in detail, keeping up with all the symbolism proved a daunting task. Notice the swastikas. They are ancient symbols of the eternal circle of life and death. Hitler turned them backwards and into a totally different meaning. There are also many different styles of crosses there, two of which can be seen in the windows of this church.
This is a fertility pool. In the past a priest got in the water–it is very deep–with a woman who could not conceive and bless her in the water. At one point when it began to fill too much, they cleaned out the bottom and found many treasures buried there, apparently dumped into the pool to protect them from enemy invaders.
The inside of the churches are intricately carved and sometimes painted.
Two types of basalt exist on this mountain, soft and hard. Churches carved out of the soft basalt have begun to deteriorate and as a consequence are covered. As can be seen here, people still come to these churches to pray and attend services.
Our guide lead us from church to church through these narrow passageways which are, as previously mentioned, used to drain water away from them in the rainy season. If Ethiopia had a national color, it would be white. It is not only worn to go to church and for religious purposes but in daily life as well. It mystifies me as to how they keep whites so very white.
The slit dug in the rock is part of the system of drainage. The grass in the foreground grows out of a pool of holy water. While we were there, a boy filled a plastic bottle with the water and left.
St. George and the dragon are everywhere, not only in churches but also on beer. He is the patron saint of the country, symbolizing the triumph of Christianity over paganism as symbolized by the dragon.
The carving in many of the churches reveal a sophisticated knowledge of how to work in stone. It is difficult to believe that this was carved by hand downward into solid basalt centuries ago.
The road to Lalibela is rather daunting, climbing higher and higher with no guard rails, nothing. As you can see from this photo, patchwork quilt fields cover even the mountainsides.
To learn more about Lalibela, see detailed information and explanations of their River Jordan and other religious symbolism, go to my blog posts from August 2014.