Let's take a stroll through insanity…
Lalibela (Roha), Ethiopia
I have always been fascinated by a group of 12th century churches located in Ethiopia, which together form the architectural wonder known as the Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela. I first read about the churches of Lalibela back in my late teens, and then again in my mid 20s when I was chin deep in books relating to a mysterious order of warrior priests commonly known as the Knights Templar, and their various quests to find the lost relics of the Bible, specifically the Ark of the Covenant from the Old Testament and the Holy Grail from the New Testament. (The suggested reasons for the crusaders visiting Ethiopia and the rumours that they helped build the churches can be better explored in one of the worthwhile links that I have put at the bottom of the page for further reading).
The Christian Kingdom of Axum in what is modern day Ethiopia (formerly Abyssinia) converted to Christianity in the 4th century, mainly due to the efforts of two Lebanese brothers who were enslaved by the Axumite king Ella Amida (aka Ousanas). The brother’s names were Frementius and Edesius. Athanasius, the Patriarch of Alexandria, consecrated Frementius as the first bishop of Ethiopia, traditionally in the year 328AD. Under the leadership of Axumite rulers, Ethiopia continued to flourish as a Christian kingdom for approx 660 years, although Muslim expansion into Egypt cut off Christian Ethiopia from all the other main centres of Christianity such as Alexandria in North Egypt, the Latin Church in Europe and the Byzantine Empire. The Axumite kingdom was eventually conquered in approx. 960AD by a female leader named Gudit (Judith) who defeated the Axumite king Hasani, and then attempted to wipe out all of the royal family.
Very little is known about Gudit’s reign, but some writers suggest she might have came from the native Ethiopian Jewish population, who trace their ancestry back to the time before the biblical Scribe Ezra (approx. 460BC), or a pagan leader from south Ethiopia. Whatever her background, Gudit was very ANTI Christian and she is said to have destroyed many churches & Christian monuments. Gudit and her successors ruled Ethiopia from approx. 960AD until the late 10th / early 11th century when Mara Takla Haymanot of the Agaw tribes claimed the Ethiopian throne and founded the Zagwe dynasty of emperors.
The Zagwe Dynasty…
The most famous king or emperor of the Zagwe dynasty is undoubtedly Emperor Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (Servant of the Cross) or Saint Lalibela (Approx Reign 1181-1221AD), who was born in Roha the capital city of the Zagwe kings, which was later renamed Lalibela in honour of him and the rock hewn churches he built there.
Legend says a swarm of bees covered him in his cot shortly after he was born. His mother feared he would die from the bee’s stings but the swarm dispersed without stinging him once, and so his mother named him Lalibela, which means “bees obey him.” (alt; chosen by the bees). His mother took this as a divine sign of destiny and said that he would become emperor of Ethiopia even though he was not the heir to the throne. Not surprisingly, this did not make him very popular with other members of the royal family, and the king and one of Lalibela’s uncles, sent him into exile.
As a young man, Lalibela claimed to have had mystical visions and spent some time living as a hermit. He is also said to have received a divine instruction to build 10 churches from the Archangel Michael, a vision he received when he almost died after being poisoned by his half brother Gophre and half sister Orierna. (Note: Lalibela is said to have spent 3 days in a tomb before rising from his death like coma, which sounds similar to the Jesus myth). King Lalibela is said to have received a separate instruction to build the 11th church in a divine message / vision from St George.
In 1180AD, Prince Lalibela embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy city of Jerusalem, which was at that time still in the hands of the European Crusaders. Lalibela’s half-brother Harba was on the Ethiopian throne, but the Ethiopian priesthood was unhappy with King Harba’s ever increasing diplomatic contacts with the vatican papacy. The Ethiopian priesthood feared the Roman church would try to interfere in the administration of the Ethiopian church or even attempt to amalgamate it. So when Lalibela returned from Jerusalem in 1185AD, the clergy pleaded with him to take the throne from Harba for the sake of preserving the Ethiopian church. Prince Lalibela reluctantly agreed to seize the throne, and became the next Zagwe king and Emperor of Ethiopia, so fulfilling his prophesised destiny.
Other rumours say that whilst in Jerusalem Prince Lalibela struck a deal with the Knights Templars to help remove his half brother Harba from the Ethiopian throne so he could become king. Whether Lalibela paid the crusaders with currency or with holy relics is a whole other discussion, which can be explored using the links I have put at the bottom of this page.
Upon becoming king, Lalibela took the name Gebre Mesqel (Servant of the Cross), and he changed the focus of Ethiopian worship away from Axum, and towards Lalibela (but after the Zagwe Dynasty ended, religious power was restored to Axum). King Lalibela strove to protect Ethiopian Christians travelling to or living in neighbouring Muslim countries. He worked hard to develop diplomatic ties to secure and strengthen his borders and formed a good relationship with the Muslim leader of Syria & Egypt, Saladin.
In 1187AD Saladin defeated the crusader armies at the battle of the Horns of Hattin and then went on to conquer Jerusalem. The fall of the holy city would have made pilgrimage increasingly difficult for Christians. This is about the time that King Lalibela decided to implement the strange vision he had previously received from the Archangel Michael. The river which ran through his capital city, Roha, was re-named the Jordan, and he commissioned the building of the rock-hewn churches that were intended to be a symbolic representation of the holy city, a New Jerusalem for Christians to visit in safety.
Each church is unique, but they follow the design of Axumite churches, and are not replicas of any buildings in Jerusalem. They are all monolithic in design, meaning that they are each carved from a single piece of rock and not constructed from bricks or stone blocks. (Similar to the temples and treasury found at Petra in Jordan). This would require the craftsmen to dig 4 wide trenches down into the bedrock around the four sides of the proposed church, and then with hammers and chisels they would literally carve out the whole church including doorways, windows, stairs, pillars, arches, altars, etc.
The 11 churches are clumped into three distinct groupings…
The Northern Group:
The first group of six churches are located north of the river. They are Bet Golgotha, Bet Mika’el (also known as Bet-Sina), Bet Maryam, Bet Meskel, Bet Danaghel, and Bet Medhane Alem.
Bet Medhane Alem (House of the Redeemer of the World). This church is the largest monolithic church in the world. In a corner of this church, there are three empty graves which are said to be symbolic graves for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Bet Maryam (House of St. Mary). This may be the oldest of the Lalibela churches. A row of carved windows in the east wall of Bet Maryam illuminates the church’s copy of the Ark of the Covenant.
The Bet Maryam also contains a pillar on which it is said Lalibela carved the reason behind the churches’ construction, whether that be a transcript of the message he received from the Archangel Michael or an explanation of the influence of Jerusalem in his design is unknown, because the pillar is always covered with a shroud and only the attending monks are privy to know what lies beneath that shroud.
Bet Mesqel. Located in the northern wall of the Bet Maryam courtyard.. It contains several large caves, some of them are inhabited by hermits.
Bet Golgotha (aka Bet Sinai) & Bet Mika’el. A tunnel at the southern end of the Bet Maryam courtyard leads to the interconnected churches of Bet Golgotha and Bet Mika’el, which, together with the Tomb of Jesus, the Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam, form the most mysterious complex in Lalibela. You can also find the tomb of Emperor Lalibela here.
Bet Selassie. The Cell of Jesus and the Selassie chapel are two shrines located at the east end of the right-hand nave of the church. The Tomb of Christ is an arched recess in the NE corner of the church. It is protected by an iron grate, behind the grate is the recumbent figure in low relief, lying on the floor, facing east, his hands crossed over his chest, wearing a short, thigh-length tunic. The face is featureless. Near it is a movable slab set into the floor, said to cover the most secret place of the holy city: the tomb or the crypt of the emperors. The shrine is completely imprisoned in the rock and features three monolithic altars. The central altar displays a relief decoration of four winged creatures with hands raised in prayer, thought to be representations of the four evangelists.
A connection between Lalibela and the Ark of the Covenant has been made by many researchers. The Dutch researcher Klaas Van Urk believes that the Ark of the Covenant was taken from Jerusalem to Roha/Lalibela, where it was housed in the Selassie crypt, before its alleged theft to southern France. It is unclear when the Tablets of Moses originally came to Ethiopia or whether they are actually the real tablets at all. What is known is that the first written references to the Ark of the covenant being in Ethiopia were written at the time of the Zagwe Dynasty, suggesting that the artefact would not have been housed in Axum, but in Lalibela. The Ark may have been moved to Axum sometime after 1270AD, when the Zagwe rule over Ethiopia ended and Axum once again became the focus of Ethiopian religion & politics… or did it go to Europe?
Bet Denagel (The house of the Virgins). Carved in the south façade of the Bet Maryam courtyard, this church is without windows, roughly hewn and the least impressive of all 11 churches.
The Eastern Group:
There is another group of four churches east of the Jordan River: Bet Emanuel, Bet Mercurious, Bet Abba Libanos, and Bet Gabriel-Rafael. There is some speculation that some of these churches may predate King Lalibela by as much as 500 years. It is also suspected that some of these buildings were not intended to serve as a church, but rather as houses or storehouses. Others argue that this group represented the Heavenly Jerusalem.
Bet Emanuel (House of Emmanuel). May have been a royal chapel.
Bet Mercurious (Houses of St. Mercurious). May have originated as a prison. Saint Mercurious (224–250AD) was a Christian matyr from Cappadocia, Eastern Asia. His original name “Philopater” means “lover of the Father”. Saint Mercurious is also known by the name Abu-Seifein, which in Arabic means, “the holder of two swords”, referring to a second sword given to him by the Archangel Michael, the same Archangel who instructed Lalibela to build the rock churches.
Bet Gabriel-Rafael (House of the Archangels). The Bet Gabriel-Rafael is believed to have been the King’s home and contains a secret entrance and even has a 15-meter deep defensive ‘moat’.
Bet Abba Libanos, (House of the Abba Libanous). A church built by Lalibela’s widow in his honour. The roof of this church is only three-quarters cut and remains unfinished. Abbot Libanos (aka Abba Mete’a), was one of the 9 missionaries / saints who went to Ethiopia in the late 5th century.
The Western Group:
Bet Giorgis (House of St. George), is the iconic image of the Lalibela complex. It is like the lead singer in a rock band, outshining the other 10 churches. Bet Giorgis is shaped in the form of a Greek cross, which some visitors have identified as a Templar cross. Standing 40 feet high, it the tallest of the 11 churches. It is also the best preserved and most spectacular. Due to it being in such good condition, some historians have suggested it was most probably the last church to be built, but maybe its condition is due to it being located away from the other 10 churches, so avoiding vandalism?
Still, archaeologists are willing to accept that the northern complex and Bet Giorgis appear to disregard the Axumite traditions, suggesting a foreign influence read more. The most likely explanation is that this “foreign influence” was actually Lalibela himself, who must have seen many different architectural styles during his exile in Jerusalem.
Other reasearchers have suggested that the Knights Templar were involved in the construction of the churches, but there is no real evidence to support this theory. A popular legend says that the Ethiopians laboured during the day and angels worked twice as hard on the churches during the night. Could it be possible that the pale faced angels were European knights who worked during the night because it was too hot for them to work during the daylight hours?
Some researchers point to the Ethiopian elements of the church’s designs and suggest that only local builders were responsible for their construction, because European crusaders would have been inclined to incorporate styles and symbols reflective of their religious traditions into the buildings.
Ethiopia has many other rock hewn churches located up & down the country such as the Gebre Mikael church and the Yohannes Maequddi church in the Gheralta mountains. It would be silly to suggest that Europeans had any input in the construction of these other churches, but the existence of these other churches does highlight the fact that the Ethiopians had been building similar structures long before the Europeans were supposed to have visited in the 12th/13th centuries. These other rock hewn churches of Ethiopia are not as famous as those found at Lalilbela. This is most probally due to the instantly recognisable shape of the Bet Giyorgis church and the associated legends of the Ark of the Covenant which are linked to the Lalibela complex.
Whatever, Whenever Whoever? these churches are absolutely awesome. The amount of rock & rubble that was removed from the bedrock to create these churches is absolutely mind boggling…