A group of eleven monolithic rock-hewn churches stand in the heart of Ethiopia, in the holy town known as Lalibela. These magnificent structures are the largest monolithic temples in the world.
The 11 rock churches of Lalibela, carved from granite, have been an object of fascinated interest to the outside world since the 16th century when a Portuguese priest named Francisco Alvarez wrote a description of them. He ended it by saying that he doubted if anyone would believe him.
The churches were made by cutting deep trenches all around a big block of stone until it was completely isolated from the mountain. Then, staring at the top and working downwards, the mass of inert rock was painstakingly chiseled to form a church complete with domes, windows, porches, and doorways. The inside was hollowed out in the same way. leaving the pillars and arches rising from the floor to the ceiling.
For centuries the population of Lalibela consisted largely of priests and monks, who tended the churches and offered hospitality to the visiting pilgrims. The town is high in the Lasta Mountains of central Ethiopia, with the solid bulk of Abuna Josef rising 13,747 feet (4,107 m) above it. Originally called Roha, the town was renamed in honour of the founder of the churches, a king of the Zagwe dynasty, which ruled here from 1173 to 1270. According to tradition, a swarm of bees immediately surrounded him when he was born, and his mother named him Lalibela, meaning "the bees acknowledge his sovereignty."
Lalibela grew up an enthusiastic Christian. He dreamed dreams and saw visions, in one of which he travelled to Jerusalem. He was determined to build a holy city of his own at his mountain fastness. Ten churches were built on either side of the appropriately named River Jordan. Skilled masons were brought from Jerusalem and Alexandra, assisted by a local workforce and according to the story, with the help of angels sent from God, who worked all night. After Lalibela's death in 1212, his widow built the eleventh church in his memory.
Given the laborious difficulty constructing them, some of the churches are surprisingly large. The biggest of them, the Church of the Savior (Bet Medhane Alem), is approximately 110 feet (33.5 m) long, 77 feet (23.5 m) wide, and 35 feet (10.6 m) high. The most revered of them is the Church of the Virgin Mary (Biete Maryam), whose lower windows are shaped into Latin and Greek crosses, swastikas, and looped crosses. Inside, the central pillar is kept wrapped in cloth. In one of Lalibela's visions, Jesus is said to have appeared and touched this pillar, and both the past and the future are inscribed on it: so it must be veiled, for mortals are not strong enough to bear the truth.
This church stands in the large courtyard, also hewn with Herculean effort out of the mountain. The Church of the Cross (Bet Maskal) was then cut into the north wall of the courtyard. Crosses are carved in its floor, pillars, and walls. On the opposite side of the courtyard is the Church of the Virgins (Bet Danaghel), dedicated to the virgin martyrs.
Other churches are connected by a maze of tunnels through the rock. The Church of St. George (Bet Giorgis), the patron saint of Ethiopia as well as of England, was cut in the shape of an equal-armed Greek cross. It stands in a deep pit and can only be reached through a tunnel. Like its sister churches, it is a tribute to the heroic determination of its builders.
Solomon and Sheba
Cut off among their towering mountains from the world outside, the Ethiopians preserved for many centuries a firm belief in their uniqueness and superiority as a nation, and for them, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was the only true vessel of God on earth. Basic to their national identity was the traditional belief that the Ethiopian royal house was descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
According to the Ethiopian story, the beautiful queen, whose name was Makeda, heard of Solomon's unparalleled wisdom and resolve to visit him. With her retinue and magnificent gifts laden on 797 camels and countless mules and asses, she made the journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem, where Solomon entertained her royally and persuaded her to sleep with him. Their son was Menelik, founder of the royal line of Ethiopian emperors, whose original citadel was at Axum. It is said that Menelik took from Jerusalem's Temple the Ark of the Covenant, which has ever since been kept secretly in St. Mary's Church in Axum. One story holds that two Italian soldiers penetrated to its hiding place, but were killed by monks.
There was, in fact, a strong Jewish influence on Ethiopia in early times, and the old ecclesiastical language of the country was a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Arabic. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, with traces of its history back to Syrian missionaries in Axum in the 4th century, values the Old Testament equally with the New. Haile Selassie, the emperor forced from power in 1974, proudly bore the title "Lion of Judah" as head of the chosen people of Ethiopia. Meteora Monasteries: The Ancient Religious Buildings Floating In The Sky