Christianity appeared on the territory of Ethiopia a long time ago, and as early as 330, it was approved as the state religion. Lalibela was an Ethiopian emperor of the Zagwe dynasty and ruled from 1181 to 1221. He was very concerned when he learned of the capture of Jerusalem by Muslim troops in 1187.
Originally there was a village called Roja, but in the twelfth century, it became the capital of the Empire of Lalibela, named after the most revered reformer emperor. For his contribution to the history of Ethiopia, he is numbered among the saints.
He spent 23 years building his legendary, sacred temple city. During this time, 11 churches were carved in the soft tuff. They were connected by a complex plumbing system, with water coming from artesian wells. This suggested that the construction was managed by a competent specialist, since the city itself is located very high in the mountains.
Note! It was assumed that the temples built were to be the new Jerusalem to replace the lost one. Many of them have names and appearances borrowed from the Holy Land. Historical sites were given biblical names, and the river was named Jordan. And according to legend, the Ark of the Covenant is hidden here. To get the latest stories, install our app here.
Myths about the construction of temples
There are several legends about the construction of the temples. The Orthodox Ethiopians themselves prefer to believe that the temples were built by angels sent to help at night. It was calculated that in order to build so many structures in a short period of time, it would have taken 40,000 hands. So there was no way to do without help from above. Workers built during the day, and angels at night, working twice as fast.
Legend has it that Emperor Lalibela had a dream or vision about Jerusalem, after which he decided to build a new city on Ethiopian soil.
Another version says that he managed to visit the ancient city before his accession to the throne, and there he was ascended to heaven, where he saw the heavenly churches and wanted to create similar ones on earth.
Important! The priests claim that when Lalibela took the decision to build the temple complex, a ray of light descended from heaven that indicated the place of construction.
Opinion of the scholars
Scholars have suggested that the mighty Templar order helped Orthodox Christians to build the New Jerusalem. Moreover, in the XIII century, this order was very strong. But the theory was rejected, the justification was the ornaments on the temples, more related to the Coptic culture.
Other scholars are inclined to believe that the temples were erected on existing foundations. Lalibela had only to complete them.
Be that as it may, the first temples date back 500 years. They may have served as military fortifications or palace services in previous reigns.
How were the temples of Lalibela built?
The churches carved into the red tuff bear traces of various architectural styles. Among the details are Greek columns and Aryan swastikas, Star of David, Egyptian arches, and Arabian windows.
Temples were cut below the surface to a depth of 40-50 meters. In some cases, natural caves were used for them which had to be widened. They were illuminated by sunlight, coming through the cut cross-shaped holes in the walls. Descended into the temples by a ladder hollowed out in the rocks.
About building process hypotheses differ. According to one of them, holes were carved around a large block of tufa. After the complete separation from the rocks, the stonecutters began to make the interior rooms.
Another variant suggests that the temples were cut from top to bottom. After the rough exterior work, the more delicate interior finishing work began. The structure of the soft stone allowed to carve all parts of the building: columns, domes, windows, doors.
Church of St. Mary
The most revered church bears the name of the Virgin Mary (Bete Mariam). Its windows are carved in the shape of woven Roman or Greek crosses, as well as the ancient swastika. In the church, icons traditionally stand on the floor.
It is the only one of all the temples that have murals and gold trim. They depict the sun and the symbolism of fertility, and the floor plates are covered with figures of animals.
Important! The material is wrapped around the inner column, located in the center. The legend related to it says that Christ appeared to Lalibela in a dream and touched the column. After that, inscriptions with information about the past and the future appeared on it. Not every mortal can understand this mystery. Therefore, in order not to embarrass the congregation, the column was covered with a cloth.
It is customary to visit churches barefoot, so shoes are removed at the entrance. To get the latest stories, install our app here.
Church of the Savior of the World
It is considered the largest church built. It is believed to be a copy of the Church of St. Mary of Sion at Axum. It has a unique exterior and interior decoration.
The walls are decorated with images of the apostles. The golden cross belonging to King Lalibela is still kept inside. Underground passages connect the church with Bete Maryam, Bete Calvary, Selassie Chapel, and Adam’s tomb.
Church of San Levanos
According to history, this temple was built by the wife of Lalibela in 1212, after his death. The ceiling and the floor of the temple rest against a rock, and one of the altar walls emit a glow.
Temple of St. George
When the emperor was completing the construction of the temple complex, Saint George the Victorious appeared to him. To commemorate this event, Lalibela decided that he would dedicate a beautiful church in the shape of a cross to him. To get the latest stories, install our app here.
It is located at the bottom of a deep well of 25×25 m, and is lit by the sun only at noon. Not a single column was cut out during its construction, although the dimensions of the cross-shaped base are impressive at 12x12m. Its height also corresponds to 12 m. The roof of the building is decorated with a carved cross.
The church is still in use, and the Ethiopians normally go down through a narrow passage in the bedrock to attend services.
Temple of Golgotha
The beautifully decorated temple supposedly contains the tomb of an Ethiopian emperor.
As many centuries ago, Ethiopian Christians go to Lalibela to worship Christ. This complex is recognized as unique, and crowds of tourists come to see it. It has been called the “eighth wonder of the world” and is truly astonishing in size and method of construction. The whole world recognizes the monolithic temples as a miracle of engineering. To get the latest stories, install our app here.