While some people spend unsparing time and money building big churches on local government approved plots, it is high time we appreciated people who spent time and their wealth designing and caving in and out rock-hewn churches.
Bulgaria has her share of such rock-hewn buildings, but Africa, in particular, can boast of her share of such buildings located in Ethiopia near the Horn of Africa.
Image by Heiss
THE ROOTS OF ROCK-HEWN CHURCHES IN ETHIOPIA
Since Queen of Sheba’s visit to Israel under King Solomon, Ethiopians have followed the religious aspects of the Jews in Israel. The ancient remains of the palace of Queen Sheba lie in Aksum, which used to be the capital city of Ethiopia. That is why it is believed today that this ancient town still hosts the replica of the Ark of God as per God’s instructions to Moses. When the dynasty of the Queen of Sheba’s Amhara Kingdom shifted four hundred kilometres southwards due to Moslems’ upheavals, Lalibela became the new capital of the Amhara rulers.
KING LALIBELA’S VISION IN ISRAEL
By the 12th Century, the new King of Lalibela undertook a pilgrimage to Israel, the Holy Land. While there, the King saw a vision in which a Spiritual Being instructed him to build churches from a rock. When he doubted about his capability to undertake such a mammoth task, he was told that spiritual beings would assist him. Thus the strange strategy of building the churches from top to bottom was put in place. For the King believed that since God had told him to build churches out of the mountainsides, he would be given the ability to do it.
DIVINE ASSISTANCE DURING ROCK-HEWING
For some of these rock-hewn churches, the builders believed that they would work during day-time while angels continued to build during night time. Unbelievably, these churches were built from the top going downwards. Eventually, none of the builders knew that 900 years later after the completion of these churches, important people like the 42nd President of the United States of America, Bill Clinton would be interested in touring such sites like the Lalibela rock-hewn churches. The spiral staircases in such buildings would be considered by some tourists as an “eighth wonder of the world.”
COINCIDENTAL BENEFITS OF ROCK-HEWN CHURCHES
One of the coincidental benefits of the rock-hewn churches was to hide expensive artefacts made of gold which were stored in these buildings. Marauding groups were rampant at that time. The Ark of God which was a treasured artefact had to be protected at all costs. The other reason was to hide their treasured religious activities from the extremists, Moslems’ Jihad harassment.
ACCESS TO THE ARK OF GOD
The town of Aksum, which is about four hundred metres from Lalibela in Ethiopia, boasts of one of its rock-hewn churches hosting what is believed to be the actual ARK OF GOD which the Israelites carried with them in their desert journey to the Promised Land. Only special High Priests are allowed to approach the special room called the Holy of Holies. Such religious men do not mix or socialize with ordinary people but are restricted to the grounds of the church until their death.
In all these rock-hewn churches, the Priest-in-Charge under the Orthodox Church carries the cross which every congregant in attendance longs to touch for special blessings and healing powers. The cross reminds them of the death and resurrection of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ whose healing powers are still fresh in their minds.
It is also believed that wedding ceremonies that take place in these underground churches carry special blessings which make separation during the lifetime of the couples impossible. Therefore, it is not surprising that many long to have their wedding vows before the priests in these rock-hewn churches. Some bridegrooms and brides travel from every corner of Ethiopia to say their vows before the priests in these churches. It is high time people came from all over the world to have their marriages blessed in these rock-hewn churches.
As mentioned earlier concerning President Bill Clinton’s visit, people travel from all continents of the world to admire such unusual architectural structures and their religious activities. The priests themselves say that they eat better when visitors from all over the world come to witness their religious activities. One can now confidently say that it is not only the priests who have benefitted from the influx of tourists but the whole community of about thirty thousand inhabitants of Lalibela and the whole nation of Ethiopia at large.
UNITY BETWEEN THE AGED AND THE YOUTH
All visitors to this tourist attraction will not fail to see the co-operation that exists between the aged and the youth. Getting in and out of these rock-hewn churches involve the descent and ascent of twenty to fifty meters. Therefore, the youth feel compelled and honoured to escort the aged in their quest to attend religious services taking place.
THE MOST IMPORTANT CHURCH BUILDING OF THE MONOLITHIC CHURCHES
Saint George is the most attractive rock-hewn churches and its structure appears in the form of a cross. It is impressive looking both in and outside the building. You cannot visit these monolithic churches (hewn from one large body of rock) without entering this building because all tour guides will not miss it at all. Its elegance makes you forget that you have entered an underground building.
Image by D Mz
THE NAMES OF OTHER MONOLITHIC CHURCHES
Some names of other monolithic churches apart from St George are:
Bel Golgotha in which, it is believed, the body of King Lalibela lies; Bet Denagel; St Mary also known traditionally as Bet Maryam; Bet Medhane houses six monolithic churches and is considered the biggest such church in the world. Last, but not the least, the Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam.
HOW TO GET TO THE SITE OF THESE MONOLITHIC CHURCHES
Apart from the rock-hewn churches in Aksum, the Lalibela churches can be reached by air which is the most convenient way from Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. They are situated 645 kilometres away from Addis Ababa.
If you are going to visit Lalibela from outside Ethiopia or Africa as a whole, one inexpensive way of reaching Ethiopia is to get onto one of the international airlines like Lufthansa, Emirates, Qatar, British or Ethiopian Airways itself and reach the capital city, Addis Ababa. From there, Ethiopian Airways has flights to Lalibela daily. This is many ways cheaper than flying directly to Lalibela using international flights.
SOME FESTIVITIES YOU SHOULD SEE
One of the festivities you should include in your calendar when visiting Lalibela occurs in January. Many tourists enjoy witnessing the “Timkat” festival on January 19th
culminating in the feast of St Michael, the Archangel on the 20th of January. This festival, also known as Epiphany, is celebrated all over the world. It is a ritual of reliving the actual baptism of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Jordan River. UNESCO also recognizes this ceremony in Ethiopia.
UNESCO’S INTEREST IN ROCK-HEWN CHURCHES IN LALIBELA
The rock-hewn churches have not gone unnoticed by UNESCO. In 1978 UNESCO recognized the unusual structure and put on some of them special roofing material to stop the weather rock erosion.
A MUST VISIT SITE
Lalibela rock-hewn churches should be visited by all people who love to see different architectural sites, religious and cultural festivals. Visits from such people may influence the turning of the Lalibela rock-hewn churches into the eighth wonder of the world. Enjoy your visit.