Ethiopia's underground churches a historic wonder

LALIBELA, Ethiopia — Ten centuries ago, King Lalibela had a vision: That his capital, Roha, in what is now northern Ethiopia, would equal Jerusalem in spiritual and architectural glory.

And thus 11 fantastic churches were hewn in the reddish-pink volcanic scoria rock, each unique in style.

Luckily Lalibela lived to be 96 years old so he saw his legacy completed. When he died in 1221, he was buried in Beta Mikael church, and Roha became known as Lalibela. And it still stands today, a landmark of sacred architecture, a World Heritage Site, and one of the wonders of Africa.

Legend says that angels helped the creation at night and St. George supervised and his horse left hoofprints on the passage leading to his church — Beta Gyorgis, the last to be built, and arguably the loveliest, cross-shaped, with elaborate windows. When the sun sets over the hills, it glimmers in pink, gold and moss green.

No wonder people thought celestial help was needed. These awesome buildings were carved with hammer and chisel, each out of a single scoria block, by an estimated 40,000 workers.

lalibela church
The monolithic Beta Immanuel is a masterpiece in Axumite kingdom style.
(Mercedes Sayagues/GlobalPost)

In the 1520s, the Portuguese priest Francisco Alvares wrote that he was “weary of writing more about these buildings because it seems to me I shall not be believed.”

Lalibela packs the kind of aesthetic and mystical power of Macchu Picchu and Angkor Wat, with the advantage of not being mobbed by tourists, at least not yet.

Grouped in two clusters, the churches have roofs at ground level and plunge down 40 feet. The seven churches are organically embedded in the rock and four are self-standing, with well-defined geometrical volumes. Among these is the world’s largest monolithic rock-hewn building, Medhane Alem, with 72 pillars and five naves.

The complex rambles underground, a labyrinth of narrow passages, causeways, steps and tunnels. This translates into a constant play of up and down, light and shadow, wide and narrow, dry, dusty sun and dark, incense-scented coolness.

The tunnel connecting Beta Gabriel and Beta Mercurios, although short — a three-minute walk — is so dark and narrow it can be scary.

There are many holes and cavities in the walls that are used for meditation, praying and fasting, and pilgrims sleep in them during festivals. Some caverns are blackened from baking holy bread. Many people have been entombed here and bones and skulls protrude from the rock, giving a sense of continuity, history and peace with death.

Each church has a resident priest, a highly regarded position. The priest at the tiny church-cave of Beta Danaghel has taken care of it for 18 years. “I am in peace, there is nothing I want,” he told GlobalPost.

Not even the obtrusive, protective roofs built by UNESCO over some churches detract from the spiritual experience, although they do spoil photographs.

Most wonderful is that the complex is alive and used. At 6 a.m. people are praying, reading sacred texts, genuflecting energetically, chatting with the priest, sitting or kneeling on worn red carpets and straw mats, which create an aroma of dry grass mingling with rock mustiness and incense.

Ancient wall paintings and wood carvings coexist with gaudy and theatrical curtains, piles of cushions, rugs and mattresses for pilgrims, centuries-old leather book-holders, drums, dreary fluorescent tubes, plastic jerrycans and things stitched, patched and held together by string: Lalibela has been used and mended over 10 centuries.

“Lalibela makes us Ethiopians proud of our history,” says Yeneneh Abebe, manager of SunBird Tours. “It is the top tourist experience of my clients.”

Religion and ritual are strong in Ethiopia and nowhere more than in Lalibela, mystical by heritage. Of its 10,000 residents, about 1,000 are priests and deacons.

Pilgrims converge here for Ethiopian Orthodox Church festivals and processions. Priests in colorful robes and brocade umbrellas carry centuries-old silver crosses, followed by thousands of believers in diaphanous white cotton shawls chanting, drumming and dancing.

Although King Lalibela spent his youth and final days in a monastery, he also had worldly concerns: beautifying Roha garnered the support of the Church and shifted political power from Axum, the capital of a powerful kingdom that flourished since the 4th century B.C. thanks to trade of ivory, gold, frankincense, grain and skins between Egypt, Sudan, the Red Sea, Arabia and India.

By the 10th century A.D., Axum was overthrown by the Roha-based Zagwe Dynasty (1137-1270). Lalibela was the third of seven Zagwe kings.

The town nestles among the Lasta mountains, a rugged plateau at nearly 1,000 feet of altitude. The road to the airport, served by Ethiopian Airlines, meanders along 18 miles of stony hills and gorges, with shepherds herding small donkeys and long-horned cattle on the road.

Lalibela town is small, quiet and friendly, with only a handful of cars. Due to the altitude, the light is incisive, and the night sky, star-studded. It is another world, infused with the timeless quality of its impressive spiritual architecture.