Known to many as the ‘New Jerusalem’, Lalibela welcomes pilgrims from near and far, enchanting everyone who visits her. Lalibela is most commonly known for its 11 rock-hewn churches, however it has a number of hidden beauties.
I’ve always been amazed by historical architecture, the Egyptian or Nubian Pyramids for example. What struck me most about the churches in Lalibela, is that they were not ‘built’ as such, but carved into the mountains by hand.
To make things easier I thought I’d break it down with some background information.
Lalibela, situated in Northern Wollo, is named after Negus (king) Gebre Meskel Lalibela, who ruled under the Zagwe Dynasty during the 12th and 13th centuries. I found the name Gebre Meskel, meaning ‘servant of the cross’, rather fitting given he would later order the building of 11 interconnected churches. The most famous of the 11 churches, Beta Giorgis, is carved into the literal shape of a cross, living up to such a powerful name. Second to Axum, Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities.
The word ‘lalibela’ translates into ‘he eats honey’ in agew (‘mar yi-belal’ in Amharic). This in itself carries a tale of prophecy as, it was said that Lalibela was surrounded by a swarm of bees at the time of his birth, an event in which his mother believed to be a sign of his thriving reign as king. Going back to the meaning of his name, ‘Lalibela’, or ‘he eats honey’, is said to also mean ‘the bees obey him’, as his ability to ‘eat honey’ derives from the bees’ willingness to grant him access to the hives.
As if his name wasn’t prophetical enough, legends say that an angel came to Negus Lalibela in a vision, asking him to build the churches and form a ‘New Jerusalem’, after the Seige of Jersualem by Muslim leader Saladin in 1187. The narrative goes that men worked tirelessly during the day, while the angels worked during the night, illustrating a trusting relationship between man and God, in the building of God’s chosen land, Ethiopia. Negus Lalibela’s allegiance with the Orthodox Church was known by many, as he even led church services in the call to prayer (Kidase). After his death, he was made a saint by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and it is said that it was his wife who built the last of the 11 churches, in honour of her late husband.
The culture, the history, the faith, the people, the landscape – I now see why Lalibela would make the perfect ‘New Jerusalem’.
Visiting Lalibela was such a magical experience, one I will never forget.
Enjoy the pictures! (All pictures are my own – feel free to use but please give credit!)