Eeriness greets people entering the rock-chiselled churches of Ethiopia’s holy city of Lalibela, thrown some 700 kilometres to the north of the capital Addis Ababa. Adherents troop into the enclosure of five churches jutting from volcanic rocks, revealing an architectural leap of faith.
The imposing and grandiose obelisks of Aksum, the breathtaking Blue Nile Falls, the crosses of different shapes, or the sour tasting staple Enjera or Injera, be it the spicy (firfir) or plain type, or the ubiquitous, bitter coffee served in capsule-size cups, but nothing neither wows nor awes visitors as the eleven rock-hewn churches.
They are in two neighbouring clusters of five each and a stand-alone one—St Giyorgis— the last to be chiselled and said to be the most beautiful.
“Wow!” people visiting the place for the first time hold their breaths, marvelling at the imagination, ingenuity, determination, the age of these buildings that carry patterns of crosses, revealing religious significance. Indeed, the 11 churches are labelled as the Eighth Wonder of the World. President Emmanuel Macron visited St Giyorgis this year.
Faithful walk in, prostrate, kiss the walls of the imposing churches of brick-red rocks, or bow as priests bless them using the miniature crosses.
People say prayers, leaning on the pillars of the church and kneeling while getting blessed by the priest who places the cross on the forehead and on the chin, then kisses the cross. “Building the 11 churches took a total 23 years in the 12th Century,” tour guide Abenezer Dereje, known as Ab, of Greenland Tours explains while fielding a barrage of questions from enthusiastic Kenyans in a group of 14 tour operators and two journalists.
Measuring between five and 11 metres high, the churches are bigger from outside than what they actually are when you go inside. The interior is decorated in various patterns drawn from the Bible and beyond.
While it is believed that King Gebre Maskal Lalibela of the Zagwe Dynasty (1185-1225) built them after a dream, Arada Guides book says the history of these churches is incomplete with some versions saying “they were built with the help of angels.”
Known as Biet, the churches are dedicated to Christ and his mission, God, saints and archangels. They are Medhane Alem, Maskal, Golgotha, Mariam, and Emmanuel. The others are Biet Denghel, Micael, Giyorgis, Gabriel, Mercurios, and Abba Libanos.
“Of the 11 churches, Biet Giyorgis (Church of St George) was the last to be built; it is a stand-alone and the most beautiful of the 11,” Abenezer the guide says.
St George is “widely worshipped” in Eastern and Western Christianity as the protector, says Arada. In Ethiopia, the St George’s Holiday is marked on April 23.
The North of Ethiopia, covering Aksum or Axum (a place of many churches), Lalibela, and Gondar is the circuit of history tourism while the South is known for cultural leaning.
While crosses are found in many parts of Ethiopia, in the North, they are hawked everywhere by everybody, including children who follow tourists everywhere haggling for prices. For the children, if you don’t buy their crosses or wrap-around, they ask for a pen.
“Mister, here, buy Aksum crosses for Birr 50 (Sh150) or 100 (Sh300),” girls, boys, older people announce their prices, ignoring polite responses like “I already have.” If you were to collect all types and shapes, perhaps you’d surpass the flight baggage limits. Ethiopia is a land of crosses.
Nonetheless, the crosses reveal a country that is deeply religious where Orthodox Christians are always streaming into the churches. On the embankment surrounding the buildings, there are hideouts and holes that some adherents of rank – priests and monks— use for sleeping.
The crosses have “a rich mixture of geometrical shapes containing a number of important spiritual symbols,” according to Arada Guides. Indeed, the church buildings are dotted with various architectural designs featuring various cross shapes. In Lalibela, the cross “plays a major role” in the decoration of churches.
Others are well known; the rest are not. Some of the crosses, identified by their shapes, are the following: the paw or Maltese, the Egyptian hooked, swastika or Indian cross, Calvary, the Latin, Tau cross, and the Greek type.
Accessing and exiting the churches is guided by tradition, practice, and norms so as not to enter the wrong the place, the wrong way. For example, shoes are not allowed into the enclosures, something that some tourists find cumbersome by removing the shoes almost 10 times and perhaps ending up with soiled socks. “Ah, nimechoka (I am tired),” one Kenyan says with a faint smile, revealing exhaustion after climbing stairs and struggling through narrow alleys, including the ‘’Road to Hell’’.
Explains Abenezer: “The Road to Hell is a four-minute walk through a pitch-dark alley that should give you a taste of what the real hell looks like.”
Through this hellish section, where no lighting is allowed to feel the eeriness, tourists feel the walls while holding on to the person ahead.