Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia

In the rock churches of the Ethiopian highlands lies Africa’s Jerusalem. The city of Lalibela is still awaiting discovery.The rectory of Lalibela, in the highlands of Ethiopia, is a shaky, two-story building, separated from the street only by a rickety corrugated iron fence. A dark, dirty staircase leads to a small office. This is where Bishop Abba Yared, 45, is dressed in a wide black robe, around his neck a gold chain with a large Jesus cross. His fingers clasp an equally wonderful hand cross. The bishop’s shoulders bear not only responsibility for the flock of his church, but also for an old wonder of church architecture – the nearly thousand year old rock churches of Lalibela.

Abba Yared speaks quietly and solemnly, befitting the dignity of his office: “He who has ever seen these churches will never forget them again.”

Elsewhere churches go up in the air, in Lalibela they are carved deep into the rock. To the entrance leads a worn stone staircase. At the back the red tuff rock face, in front of the visitor the church, which seems much higher than 15 meters from here.

The Welterlöserkirche is the largest of the 11 partially nested rock churches of Lalibela. It is surrounded by 72 pillars symbolizing the 72 helpers of Jesus. They are as carefully carved into the rock as the five naves inside, such as altars, small windows, magnificent facades.

Lalibela is the spiritual center of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. In the middle of Africa, one of the oldest Christian communities, with some 40 million believers, is the largest of the Oriental Orthodox churches. The customs and rituals are also ancient. For example, the most splendidly celebrated Christmas will take place from 6 to 7 January, because the church adheres to the old Julian calendar.

But the faithful are already making pilgrimages to Lalibela weeks before, and at the end of November the preparatory Lent begins. Every day, better every night, the white-dressed pilgrims visit the churches and crowd hundreds of them into the rocky courtyards. The services usually start early in the morning at four o’clock. On a sleepless night, when the tourist steps out onto the balcony of the hotel and admires the starry sky, which is particularly clear at this altitude, he hears from far and wide the haunting rise and fall of the ritual alternating hymns. Such a service is not for small children. It lasts between six, seven, sometimes up to ten hours and follows a strict liturgy, which the faithful attend standing all the time.

Before we enter the Welterlöserkirche, it means: take off your shoes and remove headgear. The eye slowly gets used to the darkness. In the afternoon, the church space is almost empty, because still tourists hardly get lost in the heart of Ethiopia. It is easy for us to find some peace here – in front of a small niche where the ritual utensils and instruments were stored. A calm that does not bother the monk in the least, who remains silent in a crouch. Based on a crooked stick, he also has a cross in his hand, but a much simpler than the bishop. Our Ethiopian fellow travelers go straight to the monk, hugging him twice and kissing his hand cross three times – receiving blessings for the day.

Through a short tunnel in the rock we reach the courtyard of the next church, the Marienkirche, whose three ships are decorated with graffiti and murals. Stylistically exaggerated representations of monks, Ethiopian saints or religious symbols enliven the walls, in the courtyard of the church lies the fertility pool, whose green shimmering holy water should promote the fertility of women.

Before King Lalibela, the namesake of the small town and later sainted rulers of the early Ethiopians, built the rock churches at the end of the 12th century, he had, according to legend, received the order directly from above in a three-day dream. He was to build a second Jerusalem, God called him – and Lalibela carried out the task conscientiously. And even the topography seems to be subordinate to that. In the middle of the church area flows the river Yordanos, which however only leads water during the rainy season.

Today, every Ethiopian Christian has a duty to make a pilgrimage to the most sacred city in Jerusalem, at least once in his life. But since the people are poor, a trip to the second Jerusalem, that is to Lalibela, can also be charged. Bishop Abba Yared, the Guardian of the Rock Churches, has never been to Jerusalem. But he does not complain: “I’m so proud to be here in Lalibela, because that’s the most peaceful place in the world.”