The Rock Churches of Lalibela

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In the remote town of Lalibela, perched on the mountains in the heart of Ethiopia, some 645 km from Addis Ababa, are eleven medieval monolithic churches carved out of rock. The churches were commissioned by King Lalibela who sought to recreate a new Jerusalem in the 12th century, after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the holy Land.

The churches at Lalibela are clustered in two major groups, one representing the earthly Jerusalem, and the other representing the heavenly Jerusalem. Located directly between them is a trench representing the River Jordan. The dimensions of the trench are 25 meters by 25 meters by 30 meters, and there is a small baptismal pool outside the church, which stands in an artificial trench.

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The churches were not constructed of bricks or blocks and there is no evidence of joints. Instead, they were carved out of a single block of solid rock. These blocks were further chiseled out, forming doors, windows, columns, various floors, roofs etc. This gigantic work was further completed with an extensive system of drainage ditches, trenches and ceremonial passages, some with openings to hermit caves and catacombs.

The most spectacular of Lalibela’s churches is Bet Giyorgis (St George). The church is a perfect cube, hewn in the shape of a cross and lies in a hole some 15m deep, putting its cruciform roof roughly at ground level. Biete Medhani Alem, with its five aisles, is believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, while Biete Ghiorgis has a remarkable cruciform plan. Most were probably used as churches from the outset, but Biete Mercoreos and Biete Gabriel Rafael may formerly have been royal residences. Several of the interiors are decorated with mural paintings.

The Church of St George is part of UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Sources: Wikipedia / UNESCO

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