Recently I came upon this photo of worshippers gathered for Mass in Ethiopia:
“WHAT?” I thought. “Where is this?!”
And so began my research into the fantastic rock-cut underground churches in Lalibela.
In the twelfth century, King Lalibela, a member of the Zagwe dynasty which had seized the throne of Ethiopia around 1000 A.D., sought support from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. To garner support, he commissioned a series of twelve extraordinary churches in the small town of Roha (now renamed Lalibela). He hoped to create a New Jerusalem, a pilgrimage site for Christians who could not make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
The sacred architecture of Roha was not like that in the Holy Land, though. Roha’s churches were actually underground excavations. According to Sacred-destinations.com:
Each church was created by first carving out a wide trench on all four sides of the rock, then painstakingly chiseling out the interior. The largest church is 40 feet high, and the labor required to complete such a task with only hammers and chisels is astounding.
Popular legend has it that angels came every night to pick up where the workmen had left off. One of the churches, Bet Maryam, contains a stone pillar on which King Lalibela wrote the secrets of the buildings’ construction. It is covered with old cloths and only the priests may look on it.
King Lalibela’s project for gaining the church’s favor had two unexpected results: the creation of a holy place of unparalleled beauty and the king’s conversion to a religious life. After laboring for 20 years, he abdicated his throne to become a hermit, living in a cave and eating only roots and vegetables. To this day, Ethiopian Christians regard King Lalibela as one of their greatest saints.