The rock churches
Trip Start Sep 28, 2005
103Trip End Jun 24, 2006
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Miles travelled: 64967
Today we flew from Axum to Lalibela. This is the location of the famous rock-hewn churches. A group of Jews evidently settled in the area after migrating from Israel at some unknown time prior to 640 BC (because their religious practices predate the reforms of Josiah (~640 BC) recorded in I Kings). This isolated enclave of Judaism thrived here for over 20 centuries. They are mostly gone now, as they were declared true Jews and allowed to emigrate back to Israel in 1991. But they were very powerful in the 10th century, and the Axumite empire collapsed when it came under attack by a Jewish queen named Yodit in about 980 AD. The subsequent conversion of some of these Jews to Christianity led to the Zagwe Dynasty, of which King Lalibela was the most renowned in about 1210 AD
King Lalibela moved the center of the Ethiopian empire to Roha, later renamed Lalibela. The King commissioned the construction of 13 churches which are carved out of solid rock and connected by a maze of tunnels and trenches. Up to 50 feet high, their styles vary from ones exploiting natural caves, to semi-monoliths (attached on one or more sides to the original strata), to free-standing monoliths which are separate on all sides from the surrounding rock. To make them, deep trenches were first excavated down below ground level, then the exterior of the church was shaped, then the interior was carved out. Absolutely amazing, given the sometimes elaborate structure and all the detailed inside work, that it is all one piece of rock. They had to get everything right the first time, because once you hack off rock, you can't put it back. The scope of construction made them in some ways even more impressive than the pyramids and temples of ancient Egypt and the carved facades and caves of Petra, even though they are much smaller.
Up to 40,000 people worked on the churches, and they were supposedly completed in 24 years, with the additional help of angels who worked at night. (I wonder if they were unionized labor?) The most famous is St. Giorgis, which is a cruiciform free-standing monolith.
We spent 2 days in Lalibela exploring the churches. As we were there on Sunday morning, we also observed the locals going to worship. It was quite an amazing sight, white-robed men & women, holding their crosses, reading their prayer books, chanting & praying. It could have been a scene right out of the 13th century. These churches are not primarily tourist sites, but active places of worship, and many of the songs they sing today were written 1400 years ago by St. Yared.