The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are exceptionally fine examples of a long-established Ethiopian building tradition. Monolithic churches are to be found all over the north and the centre of the country. Some of the oldest of such churches are to be found in Tigray, where some are believed to date from around the 4th to 7th centuries. But Lalibela is not one to be compared with anything. It’s second to none. You may have visited anything in the world, but nothing prepares you for what you see in Lalibela.
King Lalibela, the king after whom the rock-hewn structures are named, is believed to have commissioned these structures with the purpose of creating a holy and symbolic place which considerably influenced Ethiopian religious beliefs.
The Jerusalem theme is important. The rock churches, although connected to one another by maze-like tunnels, are physically separated by a small river which the Ethiopians named the Jordan. Churches on one side of the river represent the earthly Jerusalem; whereas those on the other side represent the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of jewels and golden sidewalks spoken of in the Bible.
Lalibela a very isolated place and the journey overland is still quite long and demanding - the sense of arrival in the little town is rather like that after making a great pilgrimage. In fact, Lalibela is a center of pilgrimage. Among the dimly lit passageways and tunnels of the medieval churches, robed priests and monks still float; from hidden crypts and grottoes comes the sound of chanting, and in the deep, cool recesses of the interiors, the smell of incense and beeswax candles still pervades.
Lalibela undoubtedly ranks among the greatest religious and historical sites, not only on the African continent, but in the Christian world. Just as remarkable, however, is its total disregard for this status. Here, more than anywhere in Ethiopia, one has the impression of landing in a time at least seven centuries behind our own.
The rock hewn churches of Lalibela were cut from massive volcanic rock. First, the contours were cut out deep, and then the decorations and interior were cut out from the outside in.
Inside the church are different rooms. The different historic cities in Ethiopia (Aksum, Gondar, Lalibela) have their own type of crosses, but in Lalibela crosses of the other types are also present. Each church features one or two crosses.