Searching for Holiness in Lalibela’s 11 Magnificent Rock-Hewn Churches


Sitting in what was a tomb dug into the side of the wall sat an elderly monk
wrapped in a yellow robe. He was holding a tattered copy of scripture,
rocking to and fro in deep meditation. Other priests and monks stood along
the walls, some looking up at the impressive rock church before them. Cut
from the bedrock over 800 years ago by King Lalibela’s followers, it stands
testament to the heart and soul of the first Christian kingdom of Africa,
and holy center of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Mid-morning. The sun is already high in the clear blue mountain sky above
the holy village. Perched on a hillside 8000 feet above the sea, deep in
the mountains of Abyssinia, with an escarpment on the eastern side of town
that reaches up to 12,000 feet, Lalibela is also home to Africa’s mountain
farmers, herders of sheep and goats, dressed in woolen robes. And it plays
host to Western tourists decked out in the latest high-tech travel gear.

My wife and I set out with our guide to visit the 11 rock churches of
Lalibela. Legend has it that King Lalibela had the churches built to show
God his devotion to Him, and that they were completed within a century.
Masons worked from sunup to sundown. And then the magic began. Angels
descended from heaven during the night to give a helping hand to the
believers. The angels saw what was being done and knew God would be happy.

Listening to the meditations going on around us, the feel of warm sun on our
faces, standing at the bottom of the church and looking up 70 feet to the
church’s roof, I knew that angels did indeed come down and build these
churches. Could humans really have cut into the earth from ground level and
carved out churches complete with windows and doorways with rudimentary
tools? How did they do it so that each church is only one piece of rock?

More than anything else I have seen in my life–from the pyramids of the
Aztecs and Mayas to the Golden Gate Bridge–Lalibela’s churches were bigger
than my mind. I could not grasp the magnitude of undertaking such an
architectural feat. “They built down, not up,” I said to myself. From
ground level, you cannot see the churches until you are on top of them.

Impressive. Magnificent. Words fail to describe their greatness.

We toured the first cluster consisting of 6 churches, walking in and out of
narrow passageways and tunnels to get from one to the other. A small room
cut into the one passageway was home to the nuns, women who have devoted
their lives to meditating on the teachings of Christ.

A little beyond the cluster along a dirt trail stood the church of St.
George, the patron saint of Ethiopia. The most famous of the churches, its
cross-shaped roof could be seen as we crested a small rise in the trail.
Having seen it on Ethiopian tourism signs, postcards and books, I still was
not prepared for its beauty. I stood in awe, feeling like maybe I was a
pilgrim. How I wanted to believe in something at that moment.

But, I could not. Earlier in our walk we visited one of the churches that
housed a replica of Jesus’ tomb. My wife was not permitted to enter the
room of the tomb. Her female-ness deemed her unworthy to enter.

I was angered by the priest’s decree that women cannot enter the room.
Wasn’t it women who prepared Jesus’ body for his true tomb? Didn’t Jesus
appear to a woman, Mary Magdalene, first after his rise from death? Wasn’t
it from a woman that Jesus was born into our world?

We took a break for lunch before seeing the final cluster of 4 churches.
They, too, did not disappoint in their architectural wonder. Once inside,
we were transformed into a place of holiness, where scripture books,
paintings and frescoes dated back to anywhere from 400-800 years. Gold,
bronze, and silver crosses mounted on staffs were shown to us by the
priests, each church having its own unique cross design. The one cross was
said to have been brought to Lalibela from Jerusalem.

Our day in what some guidebooks consider to be more impressive than Jordan’s
Petra came to a quiet close. The late afternoon sun began to set over the
rugged Simien mountain range. I thought of some people’s notion that
Lalibela should be granted “8th Wonder of the World” status. I couldn’t
think of the other seven. Why bother giving it such status?

A cup of hot tea was resting on my lips. My wife was sitting quietly beside
me. How difficult it is to be a Christian woman. I wanted to feel that
Lalibela was a place where I maybe could feel God’s presence. A few times
in the day I thought that I did, but they were erased by the denial of my
wife’s entry into the room. It was too fresh in my memory.

I know that Jesus would have allowed her to enter. He would have taken her
by the hand and welcomed her into his church. He would have sat down with
her, right there in one of Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches, on the side of a
mountain in Ethiopia, and shared his tomb with her. He would have shared a
conversation with his equal, making Lalibela a living house of the holy.

(written 29 January 2006)  see also:

2 comments on “Searching for Holiness in Lalibela’s 11 Magnificent Rock-Hewn Churches

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