Lalibela is a small town at an altitude of 2630 metres where twelve monumental churches have been hewn in volcanic rock. Classed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, this town is a very important pilgrimage site in Ethiopia. Even though the dates of construction of the churches are not agreed upon by all, the most accepted range is that the construction of the churches started at the end of the 12th century and probably ended at the beginning of the 14th century.
Look closely to the photo on the right. Notice the two people dressed in white at the bottom of the compound. Now, remember that at the beginning, there was only a gigantic piece of rock as high as the roof of the church. The compound, staircases, alleys, windows, doors and pools all have been hewn in that rock. Once the outside was completed, the craftsmen made a door and carved the inside of the church.
The enormous amount of work probably took a few decades. The kings who started these works must have had a strong faith to carry out such a work. The resources needed must have been impressive.
The church of Beta Maryam is dedicated to Mary and is one of the most venerated in the city. This church has the most beautiful interior among the twelve churches of the town.
Tradition says that this church could have been the preferred one of King Lalibela. The Christ would have appeared on this site, leaving on a pillar, the story of the past and future of the world. However, the world would disappear if the story would be unveiled... Thus, it is forbidden to look at the pillar that is permanently covered with linen.
Beta Medhane Alem is the largest church of the religious cluster, with its dimensions of 33.5 m by 23.5 and a height of 11 m. The inside of the compound is 40 metres long.
Imagine all the work required to dig trenches around the church, then to carve the 34 pillars that support the church. Notice that some pillars are not original. They have been replaced since the original ones collapsed. The church has been built with a small tilt to allow the rain to drain adequately.
According to the legend, Saint-Georges appeared to King Lalibela and was surprised that none of the churches was dedicated to him. Thus, the king has this church build and it represents the apogee of the architectural art of Lalibela.
The church with its cross-shaped form rise from its base 12 metres below. The roof is carved with a cross and is at the same level as the rock surrounding it.
Beta Amanuel is a monolithic church with a facade carved to imitate stories with blind windows.
This church may have been the private chapel of the royal family.
Beta Abba Libanos is the only church with a roof still attached to the surrounding rock.
This church would have been built in 24 hours by the wife of King Lalibela with help of angels. Maybe it is for this reason that the building is fragile and carved in a more friable rock.
This structure, looking more like a fortress, was probably converted to a church after a different use. A bridge built more recently spans the chasm that is several metres deep.
This church partly collapsed was restored quite recently. At the beginning, it was not a church, but its usage is still unknown.
We stayed a few days in Lalibela, and we were lucky enough to see a few different ceremonies.