The ancient Ethiopian empire in the north, came to an abrupt end, when a ferocious woman warrior named Queen Judith, led her tribes up from the Semienmountains and destroyed Axum, the capital. After a power vacuum of nearly a century, the Zagwe dynasty came to power in the eleventh century. These dedicated Christian kings took it upon themselves to revive and restore the various churches destroyed by Judith.
There are no less than 1000 churches in the Lasta Region of Lalibela alone. Some are hidden in enormous caves, while eleven of this master craftsmanship is found in one locale, Lalibela, previously known as Roha.
These eleven churches are brilliant feats of engineering and architecture and are often referred to as the “Eighth wonder of the world”.
The Lalibela churches are truly amazing because of two major features. The first one is the fact that these towering edifices were hewn out of the solid, red volcanic tuff on which they stand. In consequence, they seem to be of superhuman creation – in scale, in workmanship and in architectural concept. The second amazing feature is the location where they are built. The destruction of the churches by Queen Judith may have warned the builders to hide these churches from future prying eyes and plundering hands of hostile interlopers. Thus, when one approaches these churches from the road below, they remain little more than invisible against a horizon dominated by the 4,200-metre peak of Mount Abuna Yosef. Even close-up, they seem wholly unremarkable, and it is this camouflaged, chameleon quality that may have kept them safe to this day.
‘Lalibela churches, silence the most cynical pedants. Close examination is required to appreciate the full extent of the achievement because, like medieval mysteries, much effort has been made to cloak their nature.’ When an inquisitive mind compares the shabbiness of the present day lalibela town with the magnificence of the rock-hewn churches, one is forced to wonder why the extraordinary craftsmanship displayed in the building of the churches, did not ‘rub off’ even a little to the other local residences of the nobles. Because of this, there are some that think that the builders of the rock churches actually lived somewhere else, but selected that spot because of its location.
The sheer magnificence of the craftsmanship make others wonder whether the art and the builders came from Egypt. This, at least can be refuted very easily because of two factors.
- There are no Egyptian buildings in Egypt that resemble the rock churches.
- On the other hand, the idea for the rock churches may have been taken from the various rock churches of Tigray built centuries ago. The fact that the water supply system is fashioned after the one at Debre-Damo Monastery, concludes that the origin of the art is Ethiopia, and the builders are Ethiopians.
With all said or some to be said regarding the Lalibela Churches, the fact that Lalibela is a secret marvel that was fashioned by a noble king, and maintains a special and lasting place in the life of the Ethiopian Christians, is clearly established.
The church of YemrehannaKrestos, ‘Christ Show Us the Way’, is found north-east of Lalibela. This church was built by YemrehannaKrestos, the predecessor of King Lalibela. This remarkable church is a built up cave church in Axumite wood and stone construction, and has become famous for the decoration of its interior.
King NakutoLe’Abe, king Lalibela’s nephew and successor, abdicated his throne in 1270 AD and started living a hermit’s life in a cave, which has ever since become a monastery. This cave church, 7 km from Lalibela, is a simple but attractive little church, built on the site of a much older shrine.
This monastery houses one of the most interesting collections of ancient crosses, illuminated manuscripts and other icons some of which are attributed to its founder NakutoLe’Abe. These pious four Zagwe kings ruled until the thirteenth century, when a famous priest, TeklaHaymanot, persuaded them to abdicate in favor of a descendant of the old AxumiteSolomonic dynasty. What motivated this persuasion is not clear. It may be the fact that the Zaqwe kings were more inclined to be hermits and monks rather than statesmen. As a result, a power vacuum may have been created that external aggressors may take advantage of, and their handling of the affairs of the state may have suffered. Whatever the reason is however, a single priest brought about the smooth transition from one dynasty to the other.