Rock-hewn churches in Ethiopia

The amazing rock-hewn churches are scattered in several clusters over an area of 50'000 square kilometers in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.

05 July 2020

According to legend, God appeared to the future king Lalibela, who lived from 1181 to 1221, in a childhood dream. He asked Lalibela to create the image of the heavenly Jerusalem in his birthplace "from a single stone". According to tradition, eleven of the two dozen churches were completed after only 23 years.

Worshippers at entrance of the church

This fabulously short construction time, which archaeologists estimate to be at least 120 years, is due to the angels who continued working at night with the exhausted craftsmen' hammers and chisels.

Church of Saint George towers

Lalibela is situated at an average altitude of 2,500 meters and has about 9,000 inhabitants. The well-hidden rock churches were built when Romanesque and Gothic churches were growing towards the sky in Europe. At that time, the craftsmen in Lalibela carved their churches from top to bottom into the rust-red tuff of the wild and difficult to access mountainous landscape.

Rock-Hewn church at Lalibela

At first, the rough outlines of the church were determined by digging deep trenches, and then the stonemasons hollowed out the exposed block of stone. In all the rock churches, the work probably began at first on the roof. The craftsmen dug deeper and deeper into the rock and, at the same time, carried out the finishing touches. Similarly, the interior, which is much more challenging to work on, was also hollowed out. Before starting the work, every step had to be planned meticulously in advance, since corrections were not possible later.

Entrance to Sait George church at Lalibela

In contrast to Greece and Egypt's rock settlements, "Ethiopia's Heavenly City" is a place of Christian worship that is still alive today. Lalibela survived the fall of the last emperor in 1974, to whom the particular area was directly subordinate, as well as the subsequent murder of the entire higher clergy. Even during the time of the Marxist Derg government, which was dismissed after the end of the civil war in 1991, Lalibela was able to assert itself as a place of pilgrimage.

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