LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA — If this place and its 11 churches carved out of live rock, Ethiopians say it is the work of angels.
According to legend, King Lalibela, who ruled Ethiopia at the turn of the first millennium, was poisoned when still a child. Lalibela survived, but for three days he remained suspended in "the upper regions," near heaven. There, he was shown signs and symbols no mortal had ever seen. Upon his return to earth, Lalibela deciphered the code and out of it came the blueprint for the churches.
The first European to reach the remote Ethiopian highlands and see the churches in 1520 was a Portuguese Jesuit on an evangelical mission. Padre Francisco Alvares provided a breathless, if cryptic, description: "Of these buildings I shall write no more lest I should not be believed... and blamed for untruth...."
In following centuries, the virtuosity displayed by Lalibela's architects remained largely unaccounted for. The tools available at the time seemed too primitive, and nowhere in Ethiopian history is there a mention of what must have been the largest labor force ever mobilized by an Ethiopian monarch.
The sheer magnitude of the enterprise still astounds visitors: The churches, which are still used as places of worship, plunge more than 90 feet deep into the ground, with finely chiseled interiors and a maze of underground passages connecting one building to the next.
Scholars and visitors wonder why, rather than build soaring edifices projected toward heaven, the architects dug long and hard into the rock. Ethiopia had already suffered a devastating Arab invasion, and the prevailing theory is that by entrenching the churches in stone, the builders hoped to conceal them from future invaders and make them harder to destroy.