The rock churches of Lalibela have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city itself, formerly called Rohas, was re-named after an emperor of the Zagwe dynasty who reigned from 1185 to 1211. Legend had it that shortly after he was born, his mother saw a cloud of bees swarming around him, and cried out “Lalibela!” which means, “The bees recognize his sovereignty.”
Lalibela’s older half-brother, Emperor Harbay, was apparently so rattled by the prophecy that he tried to have Lalibela murdered. Lalibela fled to Jerusalem, where he remained for twenty-five years, from 1160 to 1185. Thereafter he returned to Ethiopia, whereupon his half-brother abdicated in his favor, and Lalibela subsequently began the construction of the famous rock churches in the city that now bears his name.
Now all this is very interesting, because the same years that Lalibela spent in exile in Jerusalem coincided with the Knights Templars’ residence in that same city. We don’t know what the Knights Templars were doing there, but if, as author Graham Hancock argues, they were there looking for the Holy Ark of the Covenant, and if the Ark was actually located in Axum, well, then, it’s obvious both sides would have had an interest in cutting a little deal – even if Lalibela never really intended to let the Templars walk away with the Ark.
There’s no direct evidence that any Templar ever even set foot in Ethiopia, let alone played a role in unseating Harbay and putting Lalibela on the royal throne. But there are tantalizing suggestions that that may have been the case. We know that nothing like the rock churches of Lalibela have ever been built in Ethiopia, either before or since. We know that the Templars had more architectural expertise than anyone else in the world at the time. We know that the Armenian geographer Abu Salih traveled to Ethiopia in the twelfth century and reported seeing the Ark being carried during the Timkat festival by white men with red hair. And we know that the Portuguese explorer and missionary, Father Francisco Alvarez, visited Lalibela in the sixteenth century and recorded an already centuries-old legend that the churches had been built by white men.
Lalibela was succeeded by his son Imrahana Christos and then his grandson, Naakuto Laab, the last emperor of the Zagwe dynasty. In 1270 Laab was persuaded to abdicate in favor of Yekuno Amlak, who claimed to be the rightful heir of the Solomonid line.
My wife Yaa and I traveled to Lalibela and stayed at a small and very friendly establishment called the Blu Lal Hotel.
A licensed guide is required for touring the town’s rock churches, and we retained the services of a very bright and helpful young man named Endalew.
He informed us that there were eleven rock churches in Lalibela, all still in use, all carved out of solid bedrock. Some of these churches are connected to others by a system of underground tunnels. Several are two or even three stories high, and even the floors between the stories are made of the original bedrock.
Our tour started at the Bete Medene Alem, or the House of the Savoir of the World.
This is the largest of the eleven rock churches, and took twenty-three years to build. Originally the church was surrounded by seventy-two pillars, also carved out of solid bedrock which, our guide explained, represented the seventy-two servants of Jesus. Many of these pillars have fallen down and were replaced in 1950. Like most of the rock churches of Lalibela, this one is covered by a rather unsightly awning which is necessary to protect it from water erosion.
I asked Endalew who built the churches. “Lalibela,” he replied. Well, he didn’t build them by himself, I noted. He must have had help. “The people provided the manpower,” he told me, “And God and the angels helped.”
Not wanting to ask leading questions, I inquired, “Did any foreigners help?”
“No,” he replied firmly. “Just God and the angels.”
We went on to view the House of Saint Mary church.
Inside, we saw the Star of David, the Sign of Solomon, and the Sign of Lalibela, along with the Christian cross.
Portrait of Lalibela inside the Church of Saint Mary
After viewing the insides and outsides of several other smaller churches, the afternoon’s tour ended up at the House of Saint George, the last one of the rock churches to be constructed. Two stories high, this church is truly an astonishing sight, as one first glimpses the cross-shaped roof, and then steps up to the edge to see just how far into the bedrock it goes.
Unlike any of the other rock churches of Lalibela, this one has its own drainage system built into the roof, and so has been spared the indignity of the protective awnings that cover all the other rock churches.
The next morning my wife and I went out with Endalew again, and we toured the remaining four of the rock churches.
As we walked through the tunnels and passageways that linked the churches, again and again I was struck by the sheer tonnage of rock that had to have been removed to create these edifices. And all this without explosives or steam engines or internal combustion engines, with only the most primitive tools. I don’t believe in God or angels, but I couldn’t help wondering: did the Ethiopians really create all this by themselves, or did they obtain help from some outside source?
This is the fourth of eight parts
All photos by author