Lalibela: Built by Angels

Gebre Mesqel Lalibela had a dream. He was taken to heaven and saw Jerusalem in a vision, and ordered by God to build a “New Jerusalem” on earth. When he became King of Ethiopia, he set about fulfilling this vision, gathering craftsmen and artisans from all around. Angels came down to help, and the New Jerusalem was completed in the 13th century with extraordinary speed. One church – Bet Abba Libanos – was built by King Lalibela’s wife overnight with the assistance of angels.

Ten churches were hewn out of the solid rock of the mountains, connected by a maze of small tunnels and passages. When the ten churches were completed, Saint George – the patron saint of Ethiopia – was enraged that none had been dedicated to him, and paid King Lalibela a visit. The King promised Saint George that the finest of churches would be built and dedicated to him. Thus, to the west lies Bet Giyorgis alone, known as perhaps the most finely executed church, excavated into the rock in a cruciform shape 30 metres high.

This story sounds like a legend, but in Ethiopia it is reality. Today the churches of Lalibela remain alive. If you arrive at the crack of dawn, you will find worshippers finishing the mass that began in the dark of night, crowded in the churches and congregated at their doors and windows. Later in the day, a priest lays sleeping at the altar, tired after the long night’s prayers. The sound of deacons chanting and singing in the ancient language of Ge’ez accompanies the setting sun. The churches tower over you, carved gracefully into the massive rock, leaving you speechless at how they could have been created. A place that you could almost believe is inhabited by angels.