Even if the fame of the Seven Wonders of the World has been outworn and the word “wonder” itself has been misused too often, the visitor will rediscover its true meaning, when faced with the rock churches of Lalibela. Ever since the first European to describe Lalibela, Francisco Alvarez, came to this holy city between 1521 and 1525, travelers have tried to put into words their experience, praising it as a “New Jerusalem”, a “New Golgotha”, the “Christian Citadel in the Mountains of Wondrous Ethiopia”.
The inhabitants of the monastic township of Roha-Lalibela in Lasta, Province of Wollo, dwelling in two-storeyed circular huts with dry-stone walls, are unable to believe that the rock churches are entirely made by man. They ascribe their creation to one of the last kings of the Zagwe dynasty, Lalibela, who reigned about 1200 A.D.
The Zagwe dynasty had come to power in the eleventh century, one hundred years after Queen Judith, a ferocious woman warrior, had tribes up from the Semyen mountains to destroy Axum, the capital of the ancient Ethiopian empire in the north.
The Ethiopian Church later canonized him and changed the name of Roha to Lalibela. Roha, the centre of worldly might, became Lalibela the holy city; pilgrims to Lalibela shared the same blessings as pilgrims to Jerusalem while the focus of political power drifted to the south to the region of Shoa. Legends flower in Lalibela and it is also according to legend that Lalibela grew up in Roha, where his brother was king. It is said that bees prophesied his future greatness, and Ethiopian folklore still has it that bees in a dream foretell greatness, social advance and coming riches. The king, made jealous by these prophecies about his brother, tried to poison him, but the poison merely cast Lalibela into a death-like sleep for three days. During these three days an angel carried his soul to heaven to show him the churches which he was to build Returned once more to earth he withdrew into the wilderness, then took a wife upon God’s command with ,the name of Maskal Kebra (Exalted Cross) and flew with an angel to Jerusalem. Christ himself ordered the king to abdicate in favor of Lalibela. Anointed king under the throne name Gabre-Maskal (Servant of the Cross) Lalibela, living himself an even more severe monastic life than before, carried out the construction of the churches. Angels worked side by side with the stone-masons, any within twenty-four years the entire work was completed.
Coming to Lalibela you will find an atmosphere of mystery. Approaching the village in a four wheel drive from the airport you may just catch a glimpse of a group of churches.
In Lalibela itself you will find two main groups of churches, one on each side of the river Jordan, and one other church set apart from the rest. The town of Roha-Lalibela lies between the first and the second group of churches. It is situated on the higher part of a mountain-terrace on a vast plateau of rock. At Timkat (Ethiopian Epiphany, ca. January 19) a vivid ritual unfolds before the spectator: here the dances of the priests take place after the annual repetition of mass baptism in the river Jordan. There are twelve churches and chapels, including various shrines. Four churches are monolithic in the strict sense; the remainders are excavated churches in different degrees of separation from the rock. The walls of the trenches and courtyards contain cavities and chambers sometimes filled with the mummies of pious monks and pilgrims. For the visitor who walks through the labyrinthine trenches and courtyards discovering at each turn new and surprising features, a few remarks about the architecture and history of the rock churches may be helpful.
Generally: it is the sight of eleven rock-hewn churches believed to have been curved in the late 12th or early 13th century by the then time governor king Lalibela. These remarkable edifices carved inside and outside of solid rock, ranked among the wonders of the world. Its maximum attraction fascinating beauty comes during Ethiopia’s Christmas (7 jan), Timkat or Ephpipany (19 jan) and Easter. All the churches in Lalibela are aligned within the rock so that sanctuary faces east.