Ethiopia’s Rock Hewn Church

Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia

The creation Ethiopia’s Rock Hewn Church of the Saint George (SV) is a remarkable story that blends historical craftsmanship with religious devotion. Located in  in Lalibela, Ethiopia, this architectural marvel was created during the reign of King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, a member of the Zagwe dynasty, who ruled Ethiopia in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.

Lalibela is located approximately 370 miles (600 kilometers) north of Addis Ababa in the Amhara Region, situated at an altitude of 8,200 feet (2,500 meters). In its center lies a unique complex of 11 churches cut out of the living rock some 800 years ago. King Lalibela is credited with the initiative to carve these churches out of the solid rock in the region that now bears his name. His ambition was to build a ‘New Jerusalem’, after Muslim conquests had made Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land difficult. He envisioned Lalibela as a sacred destination for Christians, and his legacy is the cluster of eleven extraordinary rock-hewn churches, of which Saint George’s church is perhaps the most stunning.

Church of St. George, in Lalibela, Ethiopia
Church of St. George

The construction of Saint George’s church, known locally as Bete Giyorgis, is steeped in legend. It is said that Saint George, the patron saint of Ethiopia, appeared to King Lalibela in a dream, rebuking him for not having built a house of worship in his honor. In response, King Lalibela commissioned the construction of this church, which was to be dedicated to Saint George.

Ethiopia’s Rock Hewn Church was expertly carved from a single block of granite with extraordinary precision and skill. Artisans started from the top, excavating downwards to carve out the intricate designs and the interior of the church. This architectural technique was unique and required a high level of planning, geometric calculation, and artistic vision. The process involved chiseling out the exterior walls, gradually excavating the interior, and finally, detailing the columns, windows, and doors.

The entire construction process of the church, and indeed of all the Lalibela churches, is shrouded in mystery and miracle. Local tradition holds that angels assisted in the construction, doubling the work rate so that the churches were completed in a remarkably short period. While the exact timeframe is unknown, it is generally believed that the construction of these churches spanned several years, possibly a few decades.

Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia

Intriguingly, the church is also shrouded in legends concerning the Ark of the Covenant. Ethiopian lore holds that the Ark, said to contain the tablets of the Ten Commandments, was brought to Ethiopia by Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. While the Ark is traditionally believed to be kept in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum, the Saint George church, along with other Lalibela churches, is thought to symbolize the journey of the Ark, embodying the spiritual journey of the devout.

To reach this architectural marvel, travelers typically fly into Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s bustling capital, and then take a short domestic flight to Lalibela Airport. From there, a mere 30-minute drive through scenic landscapes leads to the town of Lalibela. As you approach, the church, hidden by a trench, suddenly reveals itself, a majestic structure emerging from the earth, as if by divine manifestation.

22JR+MCQ, Lalibela, Ethiopia
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Saint George (Bet Giyorgis) rock-hewn church in Lalibela, Ethiopia

Visitors are often struck by the profound tranquility and timelessness that envelops this sacred site. The air here feels thick with history and devotion, as priests in colorful robes and worshippers continue age-old rituals amidst these ancient stones. A visit to Saint George’s church is not just a journey through space, but also a voyage back in time, offering a glimpse into a past where faith literally moved mountains.

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