Wednesday, December 1, 2010
When people think of Christian history and shrines, countries such as Israel, Rome, Greece, Italy and Turkey come to mind. Ethiopia? Rarely, if ever. However, high in the Lasta Mountains in the Ethiopian highlands is a collection of one thousand years Christian history in the ancient rock hewn churches of Lalibela.
A stroll through this dusty little town is a walk through the pages of history.
The architectural ingenuity, beauty, antiquity and sheer presence of these mighty churches is amazing. But despite the large number of foreign and local tourists who visit the site every year, little is known about the magnificent structures outside Ethiopia. The origins of these churches are still clouded in myth; what little is known of King Lalibela’s life is drawn largely from hagiography done centuries after his canonisation by the Ethiopian Church.
Born of the Zagwe dynasty while his half-brother was on the throne, Lalibela is said to have been exiled to Jerusalem after the reigning king tried to poison him. As a youth, Lalibela witnessed the dejection of Ethiopian pilgrims after the fall of Jerusalem to the armies of Islam in 1187 and vowed to build a New Jerusalem. After being ordained king upon his return to Ethiopia, Lalibela embarked on his quest for an African Jerusalem.
This claim is backed by the fact that although the rock churches are connected to one another by maze-like tunnels, they are separated by a stream symbolically named Jordan.
The structures on one side of the Jordan represent the earthly Jerusalem while those on the other side represent the heavenly Jerusalem. However, like the Great Pyramids, the actual methods used to build these churches remains an engineering enigma, since archaeologists estimate that the chiselling of the structures from the solid volcanic stone must have been the work of more than 40,000 men!
To credit the ancients for their labours and to avoid destruction by human encroachment, Unesco named the churches to its World Heritage List in 1978. Despite once being the headquarters of a great kingdom, the centuries and modernisation have reduced Lalibela to an obscure village with a slow pace of life, where residents hardly seems aware of the importance of the monuments in their