Ethiopian Christians date the origin of their church back to the baptism of the Ethiopian court official by Phillip, as recorded in the book of Acts. There are also suggestions the apostle Matthew preached in Ethiopia. But it wasn’t until the fourth century that Christianity was declared the state religion.
Today, this ancient tradition is kept alive through churches scattered throughout the country, in cities and towns, on island and hilltop monasteries — and especially in the city of Lalibela, one of the holiest cities for the Orthodox faithful.
I was able to visit Lalibela and its 11 amazing rock-hewn churches in February while on a trip to visit Canadian Foodgrains Bank projects in Ethiopia.
The churches were built in the 13th century, during the reign of King Lalibela. According to legend, an angel gave him a vision to build a second Jerusalem in Ethiopia following his visit to the original Jerusalem. Also according to legend, it took only 23 years to build the churches because humans worked during the day, and angels worked at night.
What makes the churches so astounding is that they were built from the top down, not from the bottom up like other buildings. The ancient carvers, working entirely by hand, dug deep into the volcanic rock to create large trenches around huge blocks of stone. They then tunnelled into these blocks, creating rooms with columns, cornices, arches, windows and doors.
Traces of foreign influences can be found in the churches, such as Maltese crosses and swastikas, which are associated with India. Either there were carvers from afar who helped build the churches, or travellers brought back ideas from foreign lands.
Of all the churches, Biete Ghiorgis, or House of St. George, is my favourite. Carved in the shape of a cross some distance from the others, the roof is flush with the mountainside but the door is many metres down below.
My tour guide for the visit was Hailu Abara, who grew up in Lalibela. His grandfather was the priest at St. George’s church; he has fond memories of playing at the churches, including in the caves now used by monks for devotions.
“There is something very spiritual about this place,” he told me, adding that Ethiopian Orthodox believers consider a visit to this “second Jerusalem” so holy that visitors will “be blessed for seven generations.”
Accordingly, thousands make a pilgrimage to Lalibela each year, especially at Christmas, Epiphany and Easter — with many of them walking, sometimes barefoot, over rough roads and mountain passes.
For Hailu, Lalibela is more than just an interesting archeological site, it is a place of worship. Walking through the churches, you can see he is right; along with the tourists, worshippers can be observed at prayer and contemplation. And each church has a priest on hand to minister to the faithful.
At the House of the Saviour of the World, I was blessed by a priest holding the gold cross of Lalibela. Dating back to the 12th century, the seven-kilogram cross is considered one of Ethiopia’s most precious religious heirlooms. Receiving a blessing with it is very special, Hailu told me.
While Hailu is devoted to his church, he is concerned about its future — fewer young people are attending or showing interest in the priesthood. One reason, he says, might be because worship services are in Ge’ez, an ancient language that only priests know.
“Nobody understands what they are saying,” Hailu says, adding that “maybe we need a reformation to make the church relevant to young people.”
Unless there are changes, he fears the churches in Lalibela could end up as nothing more than ancient curiosities, not places of worship.
There is more that could be said about the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia, such as how Ethiopians believe the Ark of the Covenant is not lost, but rather resides in a secret location in Ethiopia. The stories vary, but it was either given by King Solomon to a King Menelik of Ethiopia, it was stolen or the whole thing was set up by an angel.
Whatever the reality, it is all fascinating and mysterious — just like the amazing cave churches of Lalibela.