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Ethiopia's underground churches a historic wonder

Lalibela churches hewn from volcanic rock 800 years ago, still inspire awe.

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.