Often overshadowed in recent decades by its East African neighbors recognized for their safaris, Ethiopia has been known to Western culture for millennia. It was first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, around 1000 BC (3,000 years ago!), when the Queen of Sheba, hearing of “Solomon’s great wisdom and the glory of his kingdom,” journeyed from Ethiopia with a caravan of treasure as tribute. Unbeknownst to Solomon their union produced a son, Menilek, (meaning son of the wise man). Years later, wearing a signet ring given to him by his mother, Menilek visited Jerusalem to meet Solomon and stayed for several years to study Hebrew. When his son desired to return home, Solomon gifted the Ark of the Covenant to Menilek for safe keeping in Ethiopia, and to this day it is said to reside in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, in Aksum, where only a select few of the Ethiopian Orthodox church can see it.The story of the lost tribe of Israel or the Beta Israel (meaning House of Israel) begins with the 12,000 Israelites that Solomon sent to Ethiopia to help Menilek rule following biblical laws. According to legend, Menelik I founded the Solomonic dynasty that ruled Ethiopia with few interruptions for close to three thousand years. This ended 225 generations later, with the deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. Blasphemy, I know, but let’s not forget the Hollywood legend with Indiana Jones rescuing the arc from the Nazis, only to have it unceremoniously stored in an underground warehouse in the Nevada desert. That is an aside, but as the writer I’m allowed to digress.Around the same time that Ethiopia appears in the Hebrew Bible, the Greek writer Homer mentioned “Aethiopia” five times in the The Iliad and The Odyssey. In the Histories written by Herodotus (440 BC,) the author describes traveling up the Nile River to the territory of “Aethiopia” which began at Elephantine, modern Aswan.
Ethiopian tradition credits the introduction of Christianity to an Ethiopian eunuch in 34 AD, who was baptized by Philip the Apostle. (Acts 8:26-39) He then preached near the palace in Aksum after returning from Israel.
Ethiopian ports on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden were important stops along the trade route that brought spices from India, along with ivory and exotic animals from Africa to the Roman Empire. In the 4th century AD, Ethiopia’s first Christian king, Ezana of Aksum, sent ambassadors to Constantinople, a newly Christian Byzantine Empire, setting the stage for debates about which country – Armenia, Ethiopia (330AD) or Byzantium – was the first Christian state. Archaeologists point to Ethiopian coins minted in the 4th century bearing a cross and Ezana’s profile as solid proof.
After Ezana’s declaration of Ethiopia as a Christian country, civil war broke out between the Christian and Jewish populations, resulting in the creation of a separate Beta Israel kingdom in the Semien Mountains around Gondar that lasted from the 4th century to 1632. With the Ethiopian Orthodox Church having a site in Jerusalem since the sixth century, Ethiopian pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which took six months, were common until the route was blocked by Muslim conquests in 1100s and the journey became too hazardous. As it became surrounded further by Muslim territories, the country sank into isolation from Europe. Ethiopia’s early history and its connection to Judaism and Christianity is a twisting tale, like caravan tracks across the desert, meeting then disappearing behind sand dunes, the story buried by the blowing sands of time.Distraught by this, King Lalibela commissioned eleven architecturally perfect churches, to be hewn from solid rock, to serve as a New Jerusalem complete with a River Jordan for pilgrims to visit. He based the designs on memories of holy sites from his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a young man.Considering the limited availability of tools in the 1100s, I can’t imagine what a daunting task this must have been. I’m sure the chief architect said, “you have to be kidding.” It’s believed that 40,000 men, assisted by angels at night, labored for 24 years to create this testament to their faith. Masons outlined the shape of these churches on top of monolithic rocks, then excavated straight down forty feet to create a courtyard around this solid block. Doors would then be chiseled into the block and the creation of the church would continue from the inside, often in near total darkness.
European contact with Ethiopia was sporadic over these centuries, until the Portuguese circumnavigated the African continent in the late 1400s and began to establish trading ports along the East African coast. Early in the 1500s the first European to visit the churches of Lalibela was Francisco Alvares, a Portuguese priest assigned to the Ethiopian court as an emissary. He declared them a “wonder of the world,” penning “I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more… I swear by God, in Whose power I am, that all I have written is the truth.” It would be almost four hundred years before the next European, Gerhard Rohlfs, a German cartographer, laid eyes on them in the late 1860s.
The magnificence of this accomplishment didn’t reveal itself subtly, like a vision slowly rising from the horizon, but smacked us in the face with a WOW! as we emerged single file from a deep and narrow moss-covered trench dug from the reddish volcanic rock.
“The setting was intentionally designed to give the pilgrims a ‘spiritual journey’ of ascending to heaven as the sky and the 40 ft tall façade of Bete Medhane Alem (Church of the Savior of the World), burst forth before them after exiting the darkness,” our guide explained. The largest rock church in Lalibela and in the world is also significant because it’s believed “The hand of God touched one of its columns in a dream King Lalibela had,” our guide Girma Derbi shared as he explained the church’s columned façade that looks like it was inspired by the Parthenon.
Pilgrims in long white robes made their way through three doors that in all Ethiopian Orthodox churches face west, north and south. The nave is always on the east side of the building. “All visitors must remove their shoes before entering the church and leave them outside. You don’t have to, but it’s good if you hire a shoe guard to watch them. Unattended shoes have been known to disappear,” our guide advised.
Fatima, an official shoe guard registered with the historic site, accompanied us for the next two days as we explored the churches and passages. This kind woman helped us numerous times as we navigated treacherous footing and steep steps. Our wisdom in hiring her was reinforced when we encountered a tourist sitting shoeless, outside a church, contemplating an uncomfortable walk ahead.Women worshippers traditionally enter through a separate door and pray apart from the men. Inside, thirty-eight stone columns form four aisles and support a stone ceiling that soars overhead. After walking for days or weeks to reach Lalibela, often fasting the entire time, the journey ends here for many pilgrims, in hopes of receiving a blessing or cure from touching the Lalibela Cross and offering prayers.
We spent the rest of the day following Orthodox nuns in yellow robes, and pilgrims carrying prayer staffs along narrow interconnecting passages, through tunnels and then portals to the other Northern Churches (churches located north of a stream renamed the Jordan River.) In many churches there are stacks of prayer staffs by the entrance. These are for congregants to lean on, as there are no chairs in the churches and everyone must stand during the long worship services.
Beta Maryam (Church of Mary), Beta Masqal (Church of the Cross), Beta Danagel (Church of the Virgins), Beta Mika’el (Church of Michael), and Beta Golgotha (Church of Golgotha) all share common elements, yet they are all fascinatingly different in their various carved windows, uneven floors covered with carpets, decorated columns, frescoed walls and religious paintings. The high-banked courtyards around the churches contain caves where monks and hermits slept, or became the final resting spot of pilgrims who could go no further, their mummified remains still visible in certain places. The footpaths between churches double as drainage canals in the rainy season to whisk away water to the Jordan River.We ended our day at Beta Giyorgis (Church of St. George). This stunning cross-shaped church was excavated over thirty feet deep into the top of a hill. It is the most widely recognized of the eleven rock churches and was easily viewed from a small bluff adjacent to it, its beautiful orange patina glowing in the afternoon sun.
It has weathered the centuries better than many of the other churches which have had protective coverings suspended above them, to shield the stone structures from deterioration caused by the effects of weather and climate change.The next morning, we completed our tour of the cluster of the southern of the rock churches: Beta Emmanuel (Church of Emmanuel), Beta Abba Libanos (Church of Father Libanos), Beta Merkurios (Church of Mercurius) and Beta Gabriel and Beta Rafa’el (the twin churches of Gabriel and Raphael.)
We arrived at Beta Gabriel and Beta Rafa’el after passing through a wide tunnel that lead to a slender bridge across a deep chasm. It was silent outside, but as we opened the door to enter, the sound of chanting male voices filled the air. We were graciously welcomed into a cavernous room filled with men leaning on prayer staffs or raising them in rhythm, as they sang a liturgical chant, or Zema, accompanied by a drumbeat and the clatter of sistrum rattles. This form of worship has been a tradition in the Ethiopian church since the sixth century. To hear their Zema, click here.It’s important to remember that this is not a museum with ancient artifacts and manuscripts in glass cases, but an active holy site where the ancient manuscripts are still used daily, and it is home to a large community of priests and nuns. It has been a destination for Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims in the northern highlands (elevation 8,200’) for the last 900 years and continues to be visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims annually.Leaving the churches behind, we walked through an area of ancient two story, round houses called Lasta Tukuls, or bee huts, built from local, quarried red stone. Abandoned now for preservation, they looked sturdy, their stone construction distinctive from the other homes in the area that use an adobe method.Today roughly 100,000 foreign tourists, in addition to Ethiopian pilgrims, visit Lalibela annually, a far cry from its near obscurity 140 years ago. Located four hundred miles from Addis Ababa, it is still far enough off the usual tourist circuits to make it a unique and inspiring destination.
Our visit to Lalibela was the fulfillment of a long-held wish to see these incredible churches, which are an amazing testament to the faith of the Ethiopian people. The altitude challenged us, and it wasn’t always easy to reach the churches themselves, navigating narrow alleys with uneven footing and eroded steps, but we are so glad we persevered. It was a once in a lifetime experience that we will never forget.
Till next time, Craig & Donna