Divine intervention and the new Jerusalem

By Michael de Laine

Behind the wheel – an occasional series

William Blake may have given voice to the apocryphal story that a young Jesus, accompanied by Joseph of Arimathaea, a tin merchant, visited Glastonbury in what is now England. This story led to speculation that, in his second coming, Jesus would establish a new Jerusalem among “the dark Satanic mills” built during England’s Industrial Revolution. In an African legend, angels whisked an ailing Ethiopian king to Heaven, where he saw a city with churches hewn out of rocks. Then God commanded this king to return to earth, to Ethiopia, to turn his vision into a new Jerusalem.

A priest at the Bet Medhane Alem Church displays the Lalibela Cross

It must have been the fifth or sixth so-called rock-hewn church we’d seen that morning – after a similar number the previous afternoon – and it was getting a little monotonous. It wasn’t because the churches resemble each other, as they don’t and each has its own characteristics. But of course they do resemble each other, in that there’s normally one nave for the women, another one for the men, a central area and a closed-off area where only the priest has access.

Usually there’s also an area for the choir, but not all of the churches are big enough, so the choir stands outside – and this week, the first in Lent, with its focus on fasting and the coming Easter, attended by very large congregations, and with choirs boosted by extra members, many choirs and clerics moved outside their church.

During Lent, large choirs and priests often move outside their churches for services

With a large number of fervent churchgoers, with church services lasting up to three hours, and with chanting and prayers and ringing bells at the many churches, whether or not they were famous and historic, there was a constant background religious sound, from one direction or another, during daylight hours.

Visiting the dozen or so rock-hewn churches in Lalibela – an important town in Ethiopian Christianity, a place of pilgrimage and devotion – during a religious week was thus a rather enhanced experience for the few foreign visitors to the town at this time.

The Bet Medhane Alem Church is characterised by large, rectangular columns

Studying the churches, their history and architecture, their paintings and carvings, took time – and, suddenly, there was a surprise: the priest of the Bet Medhane Alem Church (its name in English is given as the House of the Saviour of the World) showed us one of his church’s most valuable artefacts, usually hidden away in the closed-off area housing the holiest of holies, with the church’s own version of Ark of the Covenant (which is never shown to anyone else), on the church’s saint’s day: the 7-kg, gold Lalibela Cross.

Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches are divided into two groups, one each side of a river, the Jordan, that flows through the town.

Precariously placed by a drop to the rocky bottom below, visitors can enjoy the view from this platform

North of the River Jordan are the Bet Medhane Alem; the Bet Maryam (House of Mary); the Bet Meskal (House of the Cross); the Bet Denaghel (House of Virgins); and the twin churches of Bet Golgotha-Mikael (House of Golgotha-Mikael); Golgotha has life-size depictions of the 12 Apostles and the closed-off Selassie Chapel, which may also contain the tomb of King Lalibela.

With five aisles, the Bet Medhane Alem Church is probably the world’s largest rock-hewn church, measuring 33.5 m by 23.5 m and 11.5 m high. It is surrounded by 34 large, rectangular columns; each corner comprises three jointed columns (said to symbolise the Holy Trinity). The church contains three empty graves – for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Some figures in the churches are painted, others are carved

These churches, regarded as the most impressive due to their size and the quality of the interior art, are said to represent the “real” Jerusalem.

South of the river are the Bet Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), finely carved and perhaps the royal family’s private chapel; the Bet Merkoreus (House of St Mercoreos); the Bet Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos), with only the floor and roof attached to the rock strata from which it is hewn; the Bet Gabriel-Raphael (House of Gabriel-Raphael), and the Bet Lehem (House of Holy Bread). These churches are smaller, but with the most finely carved exteriors, and they represent the “heavenly” Jerusalem.

The characteristic Greek cross of the Bet Giyorgis Church does not have the protective roof of Lalibela’s other rock-hewn churches

A further church, the Bet Giyorgis (House of St George), is isolated from the others, but connected by a system of trenches. You can also approach it along a path over rocks and grassy knolls. From one rock viewpoint you can see the much-photographed indented Greek cross on the roof of the church, which stands freed from the surrounding rock.

The church itself is also shaped like a Greek cross, which means it has no need of internal pillars. The ceilings also have crosses, and the church’s artefacts are held in two 800-year-old boxes made of olive wood – said to be carved by King Lalibela himself.

The Bet Giyorgis Church stands free from the surrounding rocks

Unlike Lalibela’s other rock-hewn churches, Bet Giyorgis does not have a protective roof constructed over it, part of the preservation efforts involved in maintaining the integrity of this Unesco World Heritage Site.

Passages interconnect many of Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches

The churches are monolithic, carved from a sloping mass of red volcanic scoria lying on dark grey basalt. They are interconnected by tunnels and passages with openings to hermit caves and catacombs. Some are of the basilica type, with archaic features and imitating architectural elements from earlier periods, yet they differ in design and style. Two are decorated with particularly interesting wall-paintings and carved figures. The principal edifices are the Medhane Alem, Maryam, Amanuel, Giyorgis and Golgota-Mikael.

Lalibela’s churches were thus not constructed in a traditional way but carved or hewn from the rock in the form of blocks. These blocks were further chiselled out, forming doors, windows, columns, various floors, roofs etc. This gigantic work was further completed with an extensive system of drainage ditches, trenches and ceremonial passages, some with openings to hermit caves and catacombs.

The two groups of rock-hewn churches at Lalibela became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1978.

Completed in 23 years, according to legend

Following the decline of the Axumite Empire, power shifted in the 12th and 13th centuries to the town of Roha in Lasta District.

Roha was renamed Lalibela in honour of King Lalibela (reigned 1181-1221) of the Zagwe Dynasty, which ruled in Lalibela for more than a century.

The construction of these rock-hewn churches is attributed to King Lalibela, who, legend has it, set out to construct a new Jerusalem, after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

According to legend, however, there was divine intervention: poisoned by a disgruntled family member and in a coma, angels whisked King Lalibela off to Heaven, where he saw a city with churches hewn out of rocks; God then instructed him to return to Ethiopia and create a new Jerusalem there, so pilgrims did not need to make a long and dangerous journey to the Holy Land.

Such legends claim that all the rock-hewn churches in Lalibela were completed in 23 years during the king’s reign, with the daytime efforts of the human workforce supplemented by angelic efforts overnight.

There is a large degree of symbolism in these churches: threes represent the Holy Trinity; fours represent the four Evangelists; nines represent the Nine Saints; twelves represent the 12 Apostles.

The Nine Saints are a group of wandering holy men who arrived in Ethiopia in the 5th century AD from the Middle East.

The facade of the Yemrehanna Kristos Church, which is located in a cavern

Lalibela does not just boast rock-hewn churches – a scenic drive lasting a little over an hour takes you to another church that predates the rock-hewn churches by almost a century.

Although it is free-standing, the Yemrehanna Kristos Church is found inside a large cavern that opens towards the north east, located in a spectacular landscape of juniper trees somewhat to the west of Mount Abuna Yosef. At 4,260 m, this prominent mountain near the eastern escarpment of the Ethiopian Highlands is the sixth-highest mountain in Ethiopia and the 19th highest in Africa.

The Yemrehanna Kristos Church is approached by a relatively steep, hard-surfaced zigzag path running from a village at the end of the road to the site.

One of Ethiopia’s best-preserved late Axumite churches, Yemrehanna Kristos is named after a 12th-century priest-king and saint, the Negus Yemrehana Krestos, of the Zagwe dynasty.

The walls of the church were constructed with alternating layers of recessed timber beams and projecting plastered stone, and the windows are covered by carved cruciform lattices. According to legend, the wood of the church was imported from Egypt, while the church’s granite blocks were taken from Jerusalem. Some sources say the walls are of marble.

One side of the Yemrehanna Kristos Church

The interior is divided into a nave and two side aisles by masonry pillars and arches, with a domed sanctuary at the east end. All interior wood surfaces, including the panelled ceilings, are elaborately decorated with carved geometric designs and polychromatic murals. The nave walls are painted with polychromatic murals depicting scenes from the Bible. Some of these murals are considered the oldest surviving mural paintings in Ethiopia.

At the Yemrehanna Kristos Church an open mass grave contains the mummified remains of thousands of pilgrims who found the waters recuperative and chose to live the rest of their lives there

Priests and hermits still live at Yemrehanna Kristos, and the church is a place of pilgrimage. Over the centuries many pilgrims came to the church and, finding that they benefitted from the recuperative powers of the water, they stayed and died here. Their mummified remains are found behind the church in a sort of open mass grave; the number ranges from 5,000 to 50,000, depending on who you speak to.

The cavern contains a second structure north of the church, traditionally said to be a palace or residence of Negus Yemrehana Krestos, but now serves as a residence and storage space for the local priests.

Some of the carved ceilings

Further carved ceilings

The whole of the church and other buildings, from the protective wall across the mouth of the cavern and back, sit on a foundation of carefully laid olive-wood panels, on which the buildings float above the marshy ground, the remains of a lake thought to have curative powers. A hole left in the panels allows you to see the water underneath.

To ensure the site’s unique historical value, the Yemrehanna Kristos Church is included on the 2014 World Monuments Watch list of important places to preserve.

Bringing Orthodox Christianity to Ethiopia

Myths, truths, legends and wishful thinking are mixed together in the history of many countries, and this is particularly true for Ethiopia, which perhaps dates back to the 8th century BC.

In terms of religion, the Hadith (the collection of teachings of the Prophet Mohammed and stories about his life) relates that, after an Ethiopian woman had nursed him, Mohammed sent his daughter and successor, and others, to Negash in Ethiopia’s Tigray region in 615 AD as refugees, to avoid persecution in Arabia; many of the refugees later returned to Arabia.

Negash continues to attract many Muslim pilgrims from all over the world. The eastern Ethiopian city of Harar is another important centre for Islam, with a large number of shrines and mosques; it has also been a respected centre of learning.

Orthodox Christianity in Ethiopia is believed to have its roots in Judaism – and legend has it that Ethiopia is home to people from the Lost Tribes of Israel, possibly the Tribe of Dan. The food restrictions, animal slaughter methods, separation of men and women inside the church and male child circumcision practised by the Orthodox church all reportedly derive from this Jewish influence.

Saint Frumentius – known in Ethiopia as Abuna Selama – is said to be the man who brought Christianity to Ethiopia. Born as a Christian in Lebanon in the 4th century AD, Selama and his brother Edesius sailed down the Red Sea to Ethiopia. At one port they were attacked by pirates or plunderers, the crew killed and the brothers abducted and taken to the king of Axum, whose kingdom included Lalibela, as slaves. Selama and Edesius gained the trust of the king and were eventually granted freedom.

When the king died, his queen asked them to stay and help raise her son, the future King Ezana. Selama used his position to convert Ezana to Christianity.

When Ezana was old enough to be crowned king, Selama traveled to Alexandria in Egypt and requested the patriarch there to send a bishop to Ethiopia – but the patriarch consecrated Selama instead and sent him back to Lalibela, where he baptised Ezana, built a number of churches and started converting the Ethiopians.

Progress was slow, however, and it was not until the 5th century, when a group of wandering monks, known today as the Nine Saints, arrived from the Levant.

These Nine Saints are often depicted in church paintings. They are: Abuna Aregawi, Abuna I, Abuna Tsama, Abuna Aftse, Abuna Gerima, Abuna Liqanos, Abuna Guba, Abuna Paneleon, Abuna Yemata.

Each holy man built a monastery on a mountaintop, from where he started to preach the new religion. Using magic and other tricks, the Nine Saints impressed the Ethiopian people enough to convert them to Christianity, which became the main religion of at least northern Ethiopia

Because of the work of these Nine Saints and others, Ethiopia is said to be the second country (after Armenia) to adopt Christianity as its state religion.

Although there have been bloody religious wars in Ethiopia’s past, the country’s Christians and Muslims live in harmony. Muslim fundamentalism is rare; women wear hijabs, shalmas or headscarves.

Overall, Orthodox believers amount to about 44% of Ethiopian people (predominantly in the highlands), while about 40% are Muslims (mainly in the country’s eastern, southern and western lowlands). Traditional African beliefs are practised by about 11% of Ethiopians (particularly in the southern and western lowlands).

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