Thursday, January 2, 2014

Day 4: The Churches of Lalibela

As the second country in the world to officially adopt Christianity (Armenia was #1), there is immense pride in the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian community of its rich ancient grounds of Christianity.  None is more popular as a pilgrimage destination, or more famous that the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Named a UNESCO cite some years ago, the 11 main churches in the town of Lalibela are dedicated to various saints (Mary, George, Archangels Gabriel & Rafael). They are remarkable because (1) they are hewn from a single enormous, rock, an not constructed with pieces of rock, and (2) there are so many in such a small area, and (3) the building and architectural detail is quite refined. Many are monoliths, carved completely out of one enormous piece of stone, and a few are carved into the side of the rock, with 3 sides exposed.  The rock is volcanic, with the top a softer lava, and the lower levels a tougher basalt. There are various theories as to how King Lalibela (yep, named the town after him because he had all these churches built during the 93 years he lived) built the churches using 40,000 Ethiopian labor, or, this is a favorite legend, angels took the night shift and did a lot of the building at night.  The common assumption is that the exterior carving was done from top to bottom, while the interior was done exactly the opposite direction.  However it was done, it is awe-inspiring to see such ancient structures (12th-13th century) with such a high level of aesthetic appeal combined with some serious construction skill.  The windows of many of the churches tell of King Lalibela’s travels, (Swastika from India) and influences (Greek  & Roman crosses) as well as Ethiopian history (the Aksiomite details that came from the former Ethiopian seat of power, Aksum).  These churches are still in use, with the people standing around the exterior doing response chanting, the priests inside the church, and various outbuildings for preparing communion, etc.  We sat some celebratory singing and dancing in a few to celebrate the feast day of St. Rafael, I believe. Lilibela is worth the travel pains; it did not disappoint.

1 comment:

  1. Hard to find the place where you enter.. really interesting structure