On a hight of 2500 metres above sea level in the north-east of Ethiopia, in the difficult reachabel mountains of Lasta we find Lalibela. It is also holy land for Ethiopia's Orthodox Christians. It stands on the third place in historic sequence.
The city was constructed by king Lalibela of the Zague dynasty around the time of the fall of the Axum empire in the 13th century. It was built in order to become the "new Ethiopian Jerusalem" and is characterised by its eleven churches carved out of the pink granite rock of the mountain, in a region where the rugged landscape still protects the churches from mass tourism.
Although Lalibela is unique, it is not the sole site of Ethiopia's famous rock-hewn churches. In Tigray near Makale, over 200 fine examples of these monuments to man's devotion to God, as well as his building skills, may be seen and visited.
The capital of the Emperor Yohannes IV (1871-1889), Makale is now the main town of Tigray, the most northern Ethiopian region. The Emperor's palace has been turned into a particularly interesting museum, with many exhibits of his time and subsequent history.
Formerly known as Roha, it now bears the name of King Lalibela, a member of the Zagwe dynasty. Shortly after his birth at Roha, the future king's mystical life began to unfold. Legend has it that one day his mother saw him lying happily in his cradle surrounded by a dense swarm of bees. Recalling an old Ethiopian belief that the animal world could foertell the advent of important personages, the second sight came upon her and she cried out: 'The bees know that this child will become King'. Accordingly she called her son 'Lalibela', wich means 'the bee recognizes his sovereignty'.
Lalibela's older brother, Harbay, the incumbent monarch, was naturally disturbed to hear this news and became jealous. As the years passed, he began to fear for the safety of his throne, decided to eliminate his rival, and unsuccesfully tried to have his brother murdered.
Persecutions of one kind or another continued for several years, culminating in a deadly potion that left the young prince in mortal sleep. During the three-day stupor, Lalibela was transported by angles to the first, second and third heavens, where God ordered him to return to Roha and build churches, the like of which the world had never seen before. The Almighty, it is said, further told the prince how to design those churches, where to build them, and how to decorate them.
After Lalibela returned to mortal existence, Harbay, acting on instructions from the Lord, went to pay homage to him and beg his forgiveness. The two brothers then rode together on the same mule to Roha and Harbay abdicated in favour of his younger brother. When Lalibela was crowned, he gathered masons, carpenters, tools, set down a scale of wages, and purchased the land needed for the building. The hurches were built with great speed, because the angels continued the work at night.
Those who scoff at such whimsical folklore are soon silenced when they glimpse the famous Lalibel churches. Physically prised from the rock in which they stand, these towering edifices seem to be of superhuman creation in scale, workmanship and concept. Some lie almost completely hidden in deep trenches, while others stand in open quarried caves. A complex and bewildering labyrinth of tunnels and narrow passageways with offset crypts, grottos and galleries connects them all. Throughout this mysterious and wonderful settlement, priests and deacons go about their timeless business scarcely seeming aware that they are living in what has become known as the Eight Wonder of the World.
The venue for some of the most famous church festivals in Ethiopia, a visit during the great celebrations of Timkat (Epiphany) is very special.
The 11 main churches are found in and around the town of Lalibela. Other churches are reached by a 45 minute drive. Apart from their historic significance they are renowned for their excellent and unique rock-carvings. The art displayed on the rocks dates from the twelfth century and these these is still intact and in great shape. Lalibela is an active pilgrim site.
The entire city may be considered a work of sculpture dedicated to the glory of God. It is has been classified as one of the wonders of the world and is protected by Unesco.
The town is also well known as a transit point for the camel caravans bringing salt up from the arid lands of the Dankal Depression. This makes the market place a particularly interesting place to visit. Interpid visitors can also make excursions into the Danakil to visit some of the Afar nomads that treck across the region.
The Makale museum is very interesting to visit. Also the castle of Ance Johannes IV is very nice to visit. You can see the traditional king clothes, crosses and historical artifacts.
Not far from Lalibela is Na'akuto La'ab, a vertitable jewel of a church built in a cave.
The churches are divided into two groups according to their location with respect to the river Jordan and are connected to each other by narrow underground passages. Each church has its own unique architectural style; all are sculpted and most are decorated with well-preserved paintings.
Wukro Churkos rock church
Ibrahanos Christos out of Lalibela, 90 km.
The rock church of Lalibela, Saint George church
Lalibela is a holy heritage, build by angels.
After the decline of the Axumite empire, lamenting their lost grandeur, Ethiopias rulers retreated with their Christian subjects to the lofty escarpment of the central uplands. There, protected by mountain battlements more formidable than anything the hand of man could fashion, they were able to repel an increasingly expansionist and militant Islam trapping and confusing their enemies in the precipitous maze of valleys that intersects the high plateau. Inevitably, a fortress mentality took root: an intense suspicion of the motives of strangers, a hatred of intrusion and interference, a protective secrecy. During this period roughly from the seventh to the sixteenth centuries AD - the Ethiopians, encompassed by the enemies of their religion, were described by the British historian Edward Gibbon as having slept for near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten. It is true, moreover, that in holding back those who sought to destroy their faith, the highlanders also effectively cut themselves off from the evolving mainstream of Christian culture. This is the only sense, however, in which they slept. Their unique, idiosyncratic civilization was otherwise very much awake - a singular and spirited affirmation of the creative power of the human intellect.