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Lalibela: a City Carved from Legend

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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.

Many improvisations were so vital, so uplifting, that they have endured to the present day as living expressions of the central and lasting values of Christian Ethiopian culture. Paramount among these priceless legacies, like a great heart beating out an ancient but powerful pulse, is the monastic settlement of Lalibela on a natural 2,600-metre rock terrace surrounded on all sides by rugged and forbidding mountains in the northern extreme of the modern province of Wollo.


Once the thriving and populous capital city of a medieval dynasty, the passing centuries have reduced Lalibela to a village. From the road below, it remains little more than invisible against a horizon dominated by the 4,200-metre peak of Mount Abuna Joseph.

Even close-up it seems wholly unremarkable. It is this camouflaged, chameleon quality, however, that gives the remote settlement its special and lasting place in the life of the highlands - for there, some 800 years ago, safe from the prying eyes and plundering hands of hostile interlopers, a noble king fashioned a secret marvel.

Lalibela, previously known as Roha, is named after the king. The word itself, which translates to mean the bees, recognizes his sovereignty and the people of the region still recount the legend that explains why.

Lalibela was born in Roha in the second half of the twelfth century, the youngest son of the royal line of the Zagwe dynasty, which then ruled over much of northern Ethiopia. Despite several elder brothers he was destined for greatness from his earliest days. Not long after his birth, his mother found a swarm of bees around his crib and recalled an old belief that the animal world foretold important futures. She cried out: -The bees know that this child will become king.

But trials and tribulations followed. The ruling king feared for his throne and tried to have Lalibela murdered and persecutions 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 angels to the first, second and third heavens where God told him not to worry but to return to Roha and build churches - the like of which the world had never seen before. God also told Lalibela how to design the churches, where to build them and how to decorate them.

Once he was crowned, he gathered masons, carpenters, tools, set down a scale of wages and purchased the land needed for the building. The churches are said to have been built with great speed because angels continued the work at night.

Many scoff at such apocryphal folklore. The Lalibela churches, however, silence the most cynical pedants. These towering edifices were hewn out of the solid, red volcanic tuff on which they stand. In consequence, they seem to be of superhuman creation - in scale, in workmanship and in concept. Close examination is required to appreciate the full extent of the achievement because, like medieval mysteries, much effort has been made to cloak their nature. 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, grottoes and galleries connects them all - a cool, lichen- enshrouded, subterranean world, shaded and damp, silent but for the faint echoes of distant footfalls as priests and deacons go about their timeless business.

Four are completely free-standing, attached only to the surrounding rock by their bases. These are Beta Medhane Alem, the House of the Savior of the World; Beta Ghenetta Mariam, the House of Mary; Beta Ammanuel, the House of Emanuel; and Beta Ghiorghis, the House of St George. Although their individual dimensions and configurations are extremely different, the churches are all built from great blocks of stone, sculptured to resemble normal buildings and wholly isolated within deep courtyards. They represent, as one authority has put it, the ultimate in rock-church design.... One is amazed at the technical skill, the material resources and the continuity of effort which such vast undertakings imply.

Beta Medhane Alem is particularly striking. More than thirty-three meters long by twenty-three-and-a-half meters wide by eleven meters high it is the largest, surrounded by a colonnade that supports the projecting eaves of the low- pitched, saddle-backed roof. The interior is equally impressive: it has five aisles with flat ceilings, a nave with a barrel vault and eight bays - which are separated by a forest of twenty- eight massive columns. Polished for centuries by the pressure of countless feet, the stone floor reflects shafts of light from apertures in the walls high above.

Yes indeed this is a place worth your visit, even the UNESCO underlined the importance of Lalibela for its cultural heritage


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