Lalibela – Amhara Region, Ethiopia

The Mystery of Subterranean, Rock-Hewn Churches

The mysterious subterranean, monolithic rock-hewn churches of Lalibela have been in continuous use by Orthodox priests since the 12th and 13th centuries, when this remote mountain town was the capital of the important Zagwe Dynasty.

The purpose of each church has eluded modern-day histo­rians. Each building is unique in size, shape, and execution, precisely and painstakingly carved out of solid bedrock (some say by tens of thousands of workers), and some are ornately decorated. Legend has it that at least one of the churches was built by angels in a single day; another legend holds that the churches came to the Zagwe king in a dream.

All of the eleven churches are carved below ground level, some reaching more than 30 feet high. They are ringed by courtyards and trenches that interconnect and become a tangled maze of tunnels and passages between one building and the next. The churches are as treasured in Ethiopia as the Great Pyramids are in Egypt. The town of Lalibela itself, set amid craggy, dramatic escarpments more than 8,000 feet high, is a delight.

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