Rock-Hewn Churches – Lalibela, Ethiopia (19.12.16)

As over two billion Christians focus on the events in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, the dramatic mountain regions of northern Ethiopia probably don’t feature too highly on the average believer’s radar.

A fact that may change shortly.

Ethiopia is becoming better known as one of Africa’s, and more specifically Christianity’s, most exciting tourism destinations. The rise in visitor numbers (from 103,000 in 1995 to 770,000 in 2015) has been reflected in an upturn in Nomadic Thoughts’ client visits.  People are attracted by the abundance of dramatic scenery, the rich culture, and the wonderful array of historical monuments, many of which belong to the Orthodox Ethiopian Church.

Ethiopia, located in the heart of the Horn of Africa, has an interesting mix of politically wobbly neighbours, including Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Eritrea and Yemen. It not only stands as a symbol of African independence during colonial times, and founding member of the UN, but is also home to the ‘New Jerusalem’.

Inspired by King Lalibela’s decision in the 12th century to counteract the Muslim cut off of the Christian pilgrimage route to the Holy Land, the remarkable development of New Jerusalem is truly one of the ancient wonders of the world. Designed with the layout of the Jordan Valley in mind – over 3,000 kms away – it boasts eleven dramatic 13th century medieval cave churches, hewn from local Lalibela monolithic rock.

I was spellbound from the moment I first clapped eyes on them. Like previous visitors over the centuries, I was in awe as to how, with rudimentary instruments, the churches had been hewn out of solid rock from the top down. The sheer devotion required, in man hours alone, to construct such extraordinary buildings is difficult to fathom. The differing designs, lay-out and size makes each construction a phenomenon in its own right.

No wonder Lalibela has been a major site of pilgrimage and worship for the followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. With history stretching back to the first half of the 4th century, it is one of Christianity’s oldest religious sites. When you are up close and personal the hewn creations are simply overwhelming. The very rock each corner, doorway and thick windowsill is cut from seems to whisper messages of peace, humility and calm.

As my previous blogs on Ethiopia’s Highlands, Links with Rome and Sub-Sahara Easter Processions allude to – so much in Ethiopia is a must-see destination and these eleven rock-hewn church wonders of Lalibela are very high on the list. Whether visiting during a Christian festival or not, you will be captivated.

These photos also show how important they are to local believers at festival periods.