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The 8th Wonder of the World: The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela

The Seven Wonders of the World have been argued over for millennia since the first list was created in Ancient Greece more than 2,000 years ago. Of all the different entries, there’s one fantastic site that is consistently and inexplicably left off: the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Found in northern Ethiopia, the beautiful churches hold a unique place in the hearts of Christians throughout much of Africa, serving as something of a Holy City to African Christians. However, the thing that genuinely differentiates Lalibela’s churches from so many others is how they were built.

In fact, in a way, they weren’t built at all. The eleven church complex was carved entirely from a single massive piece of stone. Instead of protruding from the earth, the structures sit beneath the terrain, with their rooftops barely reaching ground level. According to some, it was literally the most challenging way to build them. Today, no one is exactly sure how they were made— some people even suggest that it was through a sort of divine intervention. However, after almost one-thousand years since their competition, keeping the churches in good condition has become a real test. Whether or not the rock-hewn chapels ever become an official world wonder, they certainly inspire the feelings of one. Let’s get started.

Background and Origins

Ethiopia has a long history as a strong Christian nation. A little over 60 percent of the population identify as Christian. Though not the highest number in Africa, it is something of an outlier in the Horn of Africa, where other religions, like Islam, are much more prominent. Still, Ethiopians have a claim to be the first Christian nation in the world. As far back as about 330 AD, Ethiopia’s ruler, King Ezana of Aksum, declared the country’s full conversion to Christianity. However, Ethiopia’s religious roots run even deeper than that. The society is mentioned by name in the Bible, as, in the book of Acts, Phillip the Evangelist describes converting Ethiopians to his religion.

The faithful believe that the biblical Queen of Sheba left Ethiopia for Jerusalem, where she met King Solomon. From that meeting came a son, and, as an adult, that son returned to Ethiopia with 12,000 Israelites and the Ark of the Covenant, which contained God’s 10 Commandments.

Whether these stories are entirely accurate, most of the nation’s rulers kept this strong religious tradition in the following centuries. The first Christian church was built during the Aksumite Empire in the 6th century AD. The ruler who commissioned it, King Kaleb, lived in Roha, the township that would eventually become Lalibela. The area got its name from a ruler from the Zagwe dynasty several centuries later. King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela lived from about 1162 to 1221 AD, ruling for the final 30 years of his life. He was a devoutly religious man. So devout, in fact, that during his life, he completed the pilgrimage from Ethiopia to Jerusalem, more than 2,500 kilometers away. He found serenity in the Holy City and wanted his citizenry to have the experience for themselves.

Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslim Ayyubid Sultanate around 1190, led by Sultan Saladin. Recognizing that Ethiopian Christians would never have the chance to visit the Holy City, Lalibela dedicated himself to building a New Jerusalem in Roha. Not only would his project establish the town as a center for Christianity, but it would be modeled after Jerusalem.

15th-century painting of Emperor Lalibela

Construction

It’s impossible to understand the process behind the decision to dig the churches from stone, but from a geological perspective, it’s quite simple to see how it was possible. 30 million years ago, the Ethiopian highlands rose when fissures in the earth flooded the entire Horn of Africa with lava several kilometers deep. Due to a chemical reaction between the hardened lava and other gases and minerals in the area, the cooled volcanic rock was easy to mold with a chisel. In the area around Roha, about 600 kilometers north of Addis Ababa, this cooled lava forms a single gigantic stone covering much of the land. 

It seems likely that people before Lalibela’s time understood that structures could be built from chiseling away at the rock. Some archaeologists suggest that the earliest of the rock-hewn churches was actually created centuries before Lalibela’s rule. However, the local oral tradition is the king oversaw the entire construction process in 24 years and was aided, either directly or indirectly, by angels. Most people agree that the construction must have taken place over a series of long phases, possibly lasting centuries. Regardless, Lalibela came up with the plan to build a complex with a layout reminiscent of Jerusalem. He even named several geographical features after the Holy City’s landmarks, like the River Jordan.

Workers started the project by tracing the structure’s perimeter on the rock surface. They excavated downwards while also isolating the building’s skeleton. Once they reached the base of the church, they would go about sculpting the interior and refining the exterior.

The result was a complex of eleven buildings. The majority are found in two main groups. To the north and west of the Jordan river are five churches: the House of the Saviour of the World, the House of Mary, the House of the Cross, the House of Virgins, and the House of Golgotha Mikael. On the southeast side of the river are five more: the House of Emmanuel, the House of St. Mercoreos, the House of Abbot Libanos, the House of Gabriel Raphael, and the House of Holy Bread. A few hundred meters to the west of both of these groups is the lone House of St. George, considered by most to be the jewel in the complex’s crown. The largest of the churches, the House of the Savior of the World, covers about 750 square meters. 

All of the structures include unique design and world-class craftsmanship, especially considering the lack of proper tools. While the rock is easily chiseled, it required immense precision, as a single misplaced hammer could have compromised the structure’s integrity. From the outside looking in, though, the buildings are all pictures of exactitude. The exterior walls are smooth and marked with doors facing each direction, in the early Christian tradition. The windows take many shapes, showing that the builders were committed to more than just function. They wanted to create something beautiful.

Inside, many of the walls are rough, but that doesn’t mean the handiwork isn’t still astonishing. The interior is decorated by arcaded ceilings and barrel vaults, which, in traditional churches, serve a structural purpose along with a decorative one. In these churches, they are almost purely decorative. The floors are covered in rugs, and every story is separated into multiple levels, each one serving a different purpose in various religious ceremonies. Most of the interior walls are bare, except for the Houses of Golgotha and Mary, which include bas-reliefs and colorful paintings of biblical scenes. All of the churches are either rectangular or cruciform. The House of St. George’s symmetrical cross-shape is perhaps the most iconic image of the entire complex. 

The churches themselves are far from the project’s only engineering achievement, though. To avoid flooding, builders had to construct a series of drainage canals and trenches. The churches’ roofs were built at a slight angle so water would run off and into the drainage ducts. Other hydraulic systems were included to fill cisterns and baptismal pools. These systems had to be absolutely perfect, as excessive rainwater was the greatest threat to the building’s integrity.

Following the complex’s completion, King Lalibela was hailed as a local hero. The town of Roha was renamed in his honor, which it bears to this day.

Modern Use

While the Churches of Lalibela hold an essential place in Ethiopian Christianity, it wasn’t always apparent that they would become such meaningful religious symbols. At first, several of the structures weren’t even chapels. The Houses of Gabriel and St. Mercoreos were used as fortresses or royal palaces for at least a few decades. However, as the site grew in religious stature, all of the buildings were converted to churches.

Now, they’re used for religious ceremonies throughout the year, including regular chapel services and as homes for clergy. The churches’ most important use is as the site of the pilgrimage for followers throughout the region. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people ascend to the 2,500-meter Ethiopian highland to descend into Lalibela’s churches. The trek is typically done on foot, no matter how far adherents travel. Many of them fast throughout their journey to steep themselves in the tradition of Christ.

The gathering is called Genna, and it’s essentially the Orthodox Christian version of Christmas. Some ceremonies and feasts take place on December 25th. Yet, the holiest day is January 7th, the date most Orthodox religions claim Christ was born. On the day before Genna, tens of thousands of followers crowd the churches through the night, praying and otherwise expressing their reverence and faith, until the day of Genna finally arrives. When watching these ceremonies, the layout, design, and architectural aspects seem to shine through, with a coherent representation of religious themes.

Worshippers descend down a single ramp into the complex. To some, this represents their future ascent into heaven. Many claim this was the reason for digging into the earth. The prospect of building a raised series of churches was out of the question, so builders used the resources at their disposal to create separation between the place of worship and the temporal world. Once inside the complex, a single, kilometer-long tunnel connects the churches. In some areas, the tunnel forces travelers to walk single-file to get from one site to another. It even runs beneath the man-made River Jordan that crosses the complex. 

To many of the Ethiopian Orthodox faithful, Lalibela has become the holiest site in their faith. Some will only make the pilgrimage once in a lifetime. With increased use, though, comes a new set of challenges.

Preservation

Given its vital role in religious tradition, the challenge of preserving the churches of Lalibela has become quite a project in its own right. For almost one thousand years, the churches were entirely exposed to the elements. This meant that rain poured down on the buildings’ roofs, draining down their walls. This exposure has led to gradual degradation, but the process has been sped up in recent decades with increased use. Drainage ditches were disrupted by seismic activity in the region, which caused threatening water build-up until the systems were updated in the 20th-century. As a result, every one of the eleven churches is considered to be in critical condition.

One of the biggest challenges with preservation is the idea that the church was built by angels. Since its inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, outsiders have come to the area to work on the preservation effort. Sometimes, critical structural repairs call for drilling holes into the rock to fit a strengthening pin. However, every single change to the construction requires approval by local priests. When holes are drilled, the dust is collected by clerics. As rugs and murals began to degrade, a lengthy process was required to retouch them. 

However, the biggest challenge to preservation has been the apparent flaws in execution. The Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, ARCCH, struggled to communicate the project’s scope to the locals, and the miscommunication has led to some poor decisions. With outside funding, ARCCH erected four shelters to protect five of the churches from rain and other elements. But these structures have created their own problems. For the first time in 900 years, the churches are no longer being rained on, and the rock surfaces are drier than ever. The shelters have remained far longer than initially anticipated, and this lack of hydration is causing more structural damage to the churches. One building, the House of Emmanuel, is at risk of imminent collapse.

Now, onlookers fear that the shelters themselves are at risk of collapsing, which would surely mean the demise of the churches below. The ARCCH director has admitted that the covers must be removed, but today, there are no concrete plans for their removal or how work will proceed afterward. 

Preservation hasn’t been a complete failure, though. Some organizations have focused on training locals on how best to deal with the materials. Many of the churches have received waterproof layers, which protect from water damage without drying out the stone. Improved drainage systems have also reduced the wear and tear caused by water. The situation is tense, but most observers believe that, with the right execution, the churches can be restored and strengthened and will perhaps last another thousand years. 

Besides its religious significance, the churches’ preservation has become essential for maintaining the history of Ethiopia. The nation thrived during the Middle Ages when much of the world struggled with famine and war. Whether or not it ever officially becomes a World Wonder, it should continue to stand as a symbol of the ingenuity of those who built it and the faithful devotion of its worshippers.

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