The Nation (Nairobi)

Ethiopia: Inside Ethiopia's Wonder Churches

Deep in the rugged mountains of Ethiopia, a small village carries enormous historical and religious significance -- and wonder.

Lalibela village, 700 km north of Addis Ababa, has 11 mystical churches that bear the soul of Ethiopia's religious heritage.

On January 7, thousands of Ethiopian Orthodox Church pilgrims made a journey whose significance has outlived generations: the pilgrimage to Lalibela to mark the Ethiopian Christmas.

The same day, they celebrated the birthday of King Lalibela, who is believed to have received instructions from God to carve from rock the 11 churches.

Located in a valley in the mountains of Ethiopia's Amhara state, the small village has a mix of traditional huts and tin-roofed buildings, and it is dry and quiet.

It is surrounded by rocks and a few trees, swaying to a breeze that pours into the valley from the hills to neutralise the heat of the scorching sun.

A dusty road across the village leads to the main entrance of a cluster of six of the historic rock-hewn churches.

The main church in this cluster now has a shelter constructed over it by Unesco to protect it from adverse weather.

It is supported by pillars on the outside. According to our guide, some of the original pillars, as had been carved by the King, had fallen off but were later reconstructed.

Before we get in, our guide informs us that we will have to remove our shoes first -- it is a holy place.

It is cool inside, and dark too, but there's enough light coming from a fluorescent tube on the Eastern corner of the rocky ceiling, adjacent to the holy of holies, a curtained section where a replica of the Mosaic Ark of the Covenant is kept.

Two monks are sitting close to the entrance to the holy of holies. According to our guide, only priests are allowed into the holy of holies.

On the right side is a huge painting of Jesus on the cross, and on the left that of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.

The church is dedicated to Jesus, and is called 'Saviour of the World'.

A tunnel leads into a second rock-hewn church: the 'House of Mary'. It is smaller, but has a resident monk.

Adjacent to it is the 'House of the Cross', another church in the cluster. Here, cameras with flash cannot be used inside the church, we are told. The two churches share a rectangular hole which acts as a baptism pool.

There are more tunnels that lead to the rest of the churches on this complex.

The 'Church of St George' stands alone across the road. From a distance, its roof, which is at the ground level, looks like a huge cross placed on the ground.

This is because the church, like all other Lalibela churches, is hewn on the ground rock going downwards.

The churches have a masterful Ethiopian architecture with hints of Hebrew influence.

But it is their religious significance and history that inspire awe among thousands of Ethiopian pilgrims and tourists from all over the world.

According to Ethiopian legend, King Lalibela's brother tried to kill him by poisoning him.

However, the King only fell into a comma and came to a few days later. It is during the comma that God gave him the vision of the rock-hewn churches, according to the legend.

In the 12 Century BC, when he is said to have begun carving out the churches, Ethiopians would go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Having made the journey himself and having seen how difficult and dangerous the journey was, the King is said to have found motivation to create a replica of Jerusalem in Ethiopia, thus saving the pilgrims from the long journey.

And so, this tiny village has come to be Ethiopia's Jerusalem.

By using just a hammer and chisel, and with the help of angels, King Lalibela carved out the churches from pure rock, according to legend. That took him about 23 years to accomplish.

The villagers and pilgrims consider a seasonal river which splits Lalibela River Jordan, the biblical river where Jesus was baptised.

Like those who were there before them, the pilgrims will come and go. But the churches, the solid rock that they are, will certainly carry the soul of Ethiopia's religious heritage and significance into the unforeseeable future.

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