by Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska
The world has its seven wonders naming the rest ‘the eighth’ without really paying too much attention to which and how many of them there can be. Among the eighth wonders, however, I would put Lalibela churches in the first row.

13th century Bell TowerThe 13th century eleven monolithic churches, serving their religious purposes until today, induce feelings of a highly spiritual nature.

Lalibela is situated in a mountainous Lasta district, where the center of an Ethiopian empire survived after the decline of the Aksumite kingdom.

Not much is known to historians about this period of Ethiopian history.

What is known (except for the legends) is mainly deduced from examining the churches, their architecture, the art of decorating walls and all the rest of the pieces that move imaginations to re-construct the past.

The churches were carved in a red, soft, volcanic rock and most of their roofs are leveled to the ground. They are carved down the rock, deep and huge. To see how huge they are you need to look at the shelter made by UNESCO to protect them. Concentrate on one support and then you will see what I mean.

The New Jerusalem
Bet Giorgis As is often said, there purpose was to build “New Jerusalem” in the midst of the Lasta Mountains.

It was also to underline the continuity of ancient Aksum kingdom and its connection with Semitic culture to the other side of the Red Sea.

Even though the dynasty of Lalibela rulers was not lined to those who were in power in Aksum.

The idea of the both state continuity was strong; strong in the perception of the rulers as it was among their subjects.

The temple of Mariam Tsiyon at Aksum was supposed to be a symbolic continuation of a Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.

And this idea was further continued to Lalibela, the mountainous and new capital of the then Ethiopia.

This symbolical continuation can be traced also through architectonical details many of which can be seen in the red-rock churches also on their Star of David decorated walls.

Indeed, both pilgrims and travelers visiting Lalibela may find what they were suppose to find in Jerusalem. In addition to the eleven churches, the builders carved a bed of the Jordan River. There is even an olive tree over the dry river’s bed which according to legends, was planted when the churches were built.

Before the reign of Emperor Lalibela, who built the churches in the 12th and 13th century, the place was called Roha. According to legend, Lalibela was taken by an angel to visit Jerusalem and then instructed to build churches according to its pattern.

Even though the Zagwe dynasty, the line of Lalibela, is perceived in Ethiopian tradition as usurpers (as were not originated from the mythical Menelik I), he is still recognised a saint who built the monolithic churches by the power of God.

A Destination for Pilgrims and Tourists
All the eleven churches are preserved until today being a destination for pilgrims and tourists coming from different corners of the world.

The churches are placed in two groups situated on the banks of the rock-carved Jordan River. One is placed a bit further away in the western direction of the two clusters.

All other buildings of sacred historical Lalibela are connected with a maze of corridors.

Underground PassageWhilst one part of those underground passages is collapsed, the other part still exists; serving as a passage for pilgrims and tourists.

The churches offer a great experience not only for art, architecture lovers or for those who are fascinated with traces of history, but also for pilgrims.

There is a feeling of mystery in a maze of corridors taking you up and down through different sections.

Also a bit of scary feeling as you go on some paths that are very narrow and go directly above more or less a ten meter-high wall.

The cluster situated in the north from the Jordan River is composed of six churches. The biggest of them is Bet Medhanie Alem (redeemer of the world).

Others are Bet Meskel (Church of the Cross), Bet Mariam (Church of Mary), Bet Michael, Bet Golgotha and Bet Denagil (Church of the virgins). On the same side of the Jordan River there is a carved chapel of the Holy Trinity and a symbolic tomb of Adam.

The other group is composed of four churches. And this group is situated south of the Jordan River. The churches are: Bet Emmanuel, Bet Merkoriyos, Bet Abba Libanos, which according to the legend was built in a night, and Bet Gabriel-Rufayel.

Crosses, Symbols and Icons
Another striking thing in Lalibela is the plentiful symbols and icons you find either on the walls or on crosses. Though Lalibela is situated in the middle of Ethiopian mountains and somewhat isolated, one can see the symbols having reflections of different parts of the world.

Crosses and CrownsThere are crosses of all types:
St. Andrew’s cross, Latin cross, Maltan cross, Greek cross, St. George’s cross, also the Indian symbol of sun (swastika), David’s star etc.

The symbols came to Lalibela from the distant lands which influenced Ethiopian culture over the centuries.

There are also traces proving broad contacts between the African Christian kingdom and the rest of the world. These symbols are attractive parts of Lalibela among many others.

Generally speaking Ethiopian crosses are a wide and fascinating topic. The Ethiopian church, being a part of Eastern Christianity, collected different symbols from the whole of the Christian world and arranged them together with symbols of other cultures.

Such a marriage has resulted in the Ethiopian crosses. Some do not resemble crosses that western Christians are used to. The patterns are very rich in details and highly symbolic. The different shapes and designs stand for different interpretations.

The Lalibela cross looks more like a representation of a fountain than anything else, but above all it presents a distinguished beauty of a century-adorned object.

Astonishing, Spiritual and Sacred
There are just too many different aspects, objects and histories about Lalibela. To mention a few there are the 13th-century paintings and frescos, the old manuscripts, the different types of Ethiopian (a bit Byzantine, a bit Aksumite style) architectures.

There are also other monasteries surrounding Lalibela which can be reached within a days travel by either mule or car. All of them are astonishing, spiritual, sacred, and surrounded with breathtaking views.

And then a night in the little town, you will experience a fast growing village with more and more hotels being built almost every year. The village stands opposite the truly sacred red rock in which more or less 800 years ago, Ethiopians carved those huge and beautiful churches.

What more is there for a tourist to expect?

It is heaven! As my friend and tour companion often exclaims.

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska has plenty of travel experiences to Ethiopia and is a contributor to our site.

She has specialized in modern history of Ethiopia and currently lectures at Warsaw University, Department of African Languages and Cultures.

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska (Ph.D.)

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