Exploring Ethiopia's Wondrous Places of Worship

Monasteries and subterranean churches built 800 years ago disclose innumerable treasures

Legend has it that Lalibela was built by angels armed with masonry tools to help an ancient Ethiopian king construct churches the world had never seen.

When one gazes at the monasteries carved out of caves and sheer rock, such an explanation seems perfectly plausible.

The subterranean churches built in this tiny Ethiopian village 800 years ago were closed to the public for most of two decades because of famine, civil war, and dictatorship.

They were reopened to tourists just a few years ago.

Now foreign visitors can contemplate these unique constructions in a remote, unspoiled part of the world. Some are sculpted out of solid volcanic rock that rises like extensions of the earth. Others are connected by long underground tunnels and mazes. Some are quarried enlargements of caves.

The size and the imagination and work force required are awe-inspiring. Lalibela has been dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World. Perhaps it should be relegated to a higher position.

No one knows the true story of how these wondrous places of worship came to be. Archaeologists say it would have required the work of 40,000 men to carve the labyrinths of grottoes, courtyards, caverns, and walls out of the mauve-colored rock.

Not much is known about the sophisticated culture of architects and masons. The locals have maintained over centuries that the man responsible was King Lalibela who lived from 1181 to 1221.

According to legend, angels carried Lalibela to heaven while he was under the influence of a sleeping potion administered by his jealous brother, Harbay. God told Lalibela to return to earth and construct unique churches. He did just that, and angels worked through the night to speed up the process.

These days Lalibela is a village of 10,000 where the human foot and mules are the main forms of transportation.

Located in the arid north, it is in one of Ethiopia's poorest regions, near where the great famine of 1984-85 took place. In the village center is the main cluster of 10 churches - Bet Golgotha, Bet Mia'el, Bet Maryam, Betk Meskel, Bet Danaghel, Betmedhane Alem, Bet Amanuel, Bet Merkorios, Bet Abba Libanos, and Bet Gabriel-Rufa'el.

But they are so well-blended and hidden into the mauve landscape, I missed them at first glance. Only the sight of worshippers cloaked in white robes who appeared to be disappearing into the ground alerted me.

The maze of churches offers a tremendous variety of styles: Grecian pillars, Arabesque windows, ancient swastika and Star of David carvings, arches, and Egyptian-like buildings.

Inside are veritable treasures. Centuries-old parchment Bibles, altars and shrines decorated with frescoes of religious scenes painted in bright ochre, royal blue, and red. Serpents and the Lion of Judah figure prominently. So does St. George, Ethiopia's favorite saint, battling the dragon.

Ethiopian Easter was approaching and it was the ritual month of fasting. Priests dressed in elaborate embroidered vestments carried on seemingly oblivious to the gaping foreigners.

Visitors to Lalibela should not confine their stay to the village. Just as impressive are the more remote cave monasteries reachable only by foot or mule.

I discovered the alluring Na'akuto La'ab by chance. A jeep taking me to an agricultural project broke down in the countryside.

Some villagers casually suggested that I visit their local church while awaiting a ride back to town.

Walking five miles along the dirt road, I heard the church before seeing it. Chanting rang out across the hills from a hole - which I soon realized was a cave. We gingerly walked along a narrow ridge in single file to a tunnel-like entrance. Inside, a priest pounded on a ceremonial drum of goat hide and gourd while novices sang. They proudly showed us painted parchment and crowns dating back hundreds of years.

Inspired by the visit, the following day I took a mule to Achetan Maryam, a monastery several hours from town. Breathless at 9,000 feet above sea level, I felt as if I was approaching the top of the world. The guide spurred our animals on but near the end, the steep incline was too much, and we had to dismount and continue on foot.

Like goats, the beasts clambered nimbly on the rock, their embroidered pink, yellow, and green saddle clothes with the Lion of Judah emblem shining in the sunlight.

The monastery, carved out of rock on top of a mountain with Ethiopia's version of the Grand Canyon sweeping below, was a perfect place for contemplation.

Lalibela was the final stop of a tour of other ancient sites. I tried to get to Axum, the legendary birthplace of the Queen of Sheba, which allegedly houses the Ark of Convenent. But the plane unfortunately had broken down. I did however visit Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile, and the medieval fortress town of Gonder.

The lake district was Ethiopia's political and religious center from the late 13th through early 17th centuries. The best place to base oneself is Bahir Dar, near the majestic waterfalls - Tis Isat (Water that Smokes) - which plunge 200 feet from where the Blue Nile begins.

Papyrus (Tankwa) canoes float between the 37 islands that shelter 20 monasteries. Isolated, they have over the centuries stored religious treasures. Most are closed to women - except for the 14th-century Ura Kidane Mehret on the Zeghe Peninsula that has some of the most decorative relics.

Gonder's Fasilides Castles are like a child's idea of a medieval fortress with its heavy stone turrets and ramparts. For 600 years, the town was the capital of Ethiopian kings.

The 7,000-square-yard complex survived Muslim attacks throughout the ages as well as British bombings during World War II.

The only church that remained intact from Muslim marauders was Debra Berhan, which has some of the finest religious wall paintings in all of Ethiopia.Its ceiling is particularly famed for 80 angels, all glancing in different directions to signify that goodness is everywhere.

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