Lalibela rock-hewn churches

weekly photo challenge: renewal

Friday, November 9: The theme for the Weekly Photo Challenge is Renewal.

Liturgy is like a strong tree whose beauty is derived from the continuous renewal of its leaves, but whose strength comes from the old trunk, with solid roots in the ground.  ~ Pope Paul VI

This priest in a church in Lalibela, Ethiopia is engrossed in spiritual renewal…

Education involves a continual renewal of the mind.  These three Ethiopian girls are on their way to school.

renewal of the mind: going to school

Renewal can also be just relaxing with friends and playing a game, even if the game involves using bottle caps for checkers.

checkers with bottle caps. Games can renew the soul….. Lake Langano, Ethiopia.

Renewal. This word conjures a variety of images, from bright blossoms to meditating monks. When I think of “renewal,” I think of starting a new job, arriving in a new city that’s ripe for exploration, walking through a new apartment with white walls, and taking a hot shower after a challenging day.  I think of beginnings. Life. Opportunity. What images does Renewal conjure for you? Get creative. Think beyond the usual images (a sunrise, a birth). We want to see what else you can come up with.

Categories: Africa, Bishangari Lodge, Ethiopia, Lake Langano, Lalibela, Lalibela rock-hewn churches, Weekly Photo Challenge | Tags: | 17 Comments

travel theme: bright

Sunday, November 4: Ailsa’s Travel Theme for this week is Bright. She writes: So what bright delights have caught your eye?  Show me your brilliant brights. (Where’s my backpack? Travel Theme: Bright)

Here is a chanting church service at Bet Mikael, one of the churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia, with bright light shining over the believers.

Priests and boys chanting in Bet Mikael at Lalibela, Ethiopia. It’s almost as if the bright light is God beaming down on them….

There are beautiful bright paintings found in all the Lalibela rock-hewn churches.  These churches, built in the 11th century, are still used today.

a bright painting of the Virgin and child at the Lalibela churches

At the Saturday market in Lalibela, bright textiles are offered for sale.

the Saturday market at Lalibela, Ethiopia

And finally, at Lake Langano in southern Ethiopia, the evening twilight casts a bright light over the landscape of acacia trees.

the landscape of Lake Langano at twilight

Categories: Africa, Bet Mikael, Bishangari Lodge, Bright, Ethiopia, Lake Langano, Lalibela, Lalibela rock-hewn churches, Travel Theme | Tags: , , | 9 Comments

lalibela’s southeastern churches

Friday, October 26: After lunch at the Mountain View Hotel, we head out again with Masala to the southeastern group of Lalibela churches.  On the way, Masala points out The River Jordan and Mount Tabor, named after Jerusalem’s holy sites.  Heading to Bet Gabriel-Rufael, we climb a path alongside of which is a sliver of hewn rock known as “The Way to Heaven.”

We enter Bet Gabriel-Rufael from the top of the church, walking over a rock-carved bridge that crosses a deep trench. Scholars think this church may have been a fortified palace for Aksumite royalty in the 7th and 8th centuries.  The monumental facade is the most interesting thing about this church.

We make our way through a pitch-black tunnel, which Masala likens to the experience to descending into hell.  We emerge into light (likened to heaven) into Bet Merkorios, which some say may have once been the town’s prison.  This is because of ankle shackles found within the church.  Inside is a fresco representing the three wise men, possibly created in the 15th century.

The freestanding Bet Amanuel is a finely-carved church and may have been the royal family’s private chapel.  Its building style is like Aksumite buildings; its projecting and recessed walls of stone mimic layers of wood and stone found in Aksumite buildings.

Finally, we visit Bet Abba Libanos, which is a hypogeous church.  This means it is under the earth’s surface.  In fact, the church is attached to rock at the top and bottom.  Legend says it was built overnight by Lalibela’s wife with the help of a few angels.  It seems to grow sandwiched between slabs of rock.

Here is a gallery of the southeastern churches.  Click on any of the images for a full-sized slide show.

Categories: Africa, Bet Abba Libanos, Bet Amanuel, Bet Gabriel-Rufael, Bet Merkorios, Ethiopia, Lalibela, Lalibela rock-hewn churches | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

the wonder of lalibela: bet giyorgis

Friday, October 26:  As we walk down the gravelly and dusty hill from the tukul village to Bet Giyorgis, the gravel slips out from under my feet and I crash to the ground, my right knee collapsing under me like a jackknife.  I can’t even stop the barrage of unladylike words that spring out of my mouth.  Three years ago, I had a partial knee replacement in my right knee, and it seems whenever I fall, that’s the knee that snaps.  When I fall today, it hurts like hell!  I think for sure I have seriously damaged it.

Bet Giyorgis from the hilltop above

Masala and Ed lend me their hands and pull me up.  After dusting myself off and shaking it out, I find my limbs appear to be intact.  I’m in pain, but I think I’m okay. Thank goodness for that.  Ethiopia, and especially Lalibela, is not a place where I would want to have a medical emergency!

Bet Giyorgis, from the top of the trench

We continue down the hill to Bet Giyorgis, the most spectacular of all the Lalibela churches.  For one, it is perfectly formed in the shape of a Greek cross.  It is 15 meters (49 feet) high, carved out of a deep trench, and is the best preserved of the churches.  Because it is well-preserved, it lacks the obtrusive and unsightly UNESCO roof and scaffolding that most of the other churches have.

Bet Giyorgis

Carved from solid red volcanic rock in the 12th century, it is the most well-known and last built of the eleven churches in the Lalibela area. Legend has it that Ethiopia’s patron saint, Saint George, unexpectedly came to visit King Lalibela on a white horse, just as the King was finishing off his churches. St. George was a little peeved as none of the churches was dedicated to him.  King Lalibela immediately sought to make amends by building St. George the most beautiful church of all, Bet Giyorgis, which means Church of Saint George.

Yep, I’m really here at Bet Giyorgis! 🙂

meditative moment at Bet Giyorgis

The dimensions of the trench within which the church sits are 25 meters by 25 meters by 30 meters (82’x82’x98′).  Outside the church is a small baptismal pool, overgrown with grasses which are used in Palm Sunday services.

a baptismal pool at Bet Giyorgis

Inside are more colorful paintings, a priest, and two 800-year-old olive-wood boxes: one is rumored to have been carved by King Lalibela himself and is said to contain a crucifix, made with gold brought from King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.

colorful painting of St. George in Bet Giyorgis

Masala tells me I can ask the priest to wave his cross over me for healing, following my fall as I came down the hill.  I ask him to do so, and he waves the cross all around my knees, and then all over my body for healing.  Ed has him wave the cross over him too, for general back pain.  We tip him several Ethiopian birr.

a view of Bet Giyorgis from within the trench

one of the nuns of the Lalibela churches

As we leave the church, we see the hoofprints left by St. George’s horse, permanently gouged into the stone on the sides of the trench.

the hoofprints of St. George’s horse in the wall of the trench at Bet Giyorgis

After we visit Bet Giyorgis, we head back to our hotel for lunch.  Later this afternoon, we will head to the southeastern group of churches.

Categories: Africa, Bet Giyorgis, Ethiopia, Lalibela | Tags: , , | 7 Comments

bet mikael, bet golgotha, bet uraiel & the tomb of adam {northern lalibela churches}

Friday, October 26:  We walk through another passageway cut into solid rock to Bet Mikael, also known as Bet Debre Sina, which serves as an anteroom to the Selassie Chapel, one of Lalibela’s holiest sanctuaries.  Sadly, the Selassie Chapel is rarely opened to the public, so we don’t get to see that.

However, in Bet Mikael, we come upon a group of men dressed in white, chanting, beating on drums, and burning incense.  They are in the midst of a church service which is beyond my understanding or experience.  The men seem suspended in some mystical, ethereal world, dressed as they are and enveloped in a haze of incense smoke and streaming sunlight.  We stand, enraptured by them for quite some time, amazed that we happened upon this holy ceremony.

a chanting service in Bet Mikael

a boy and a blind man in the service

a holy and mystical ceremony

a painting in Bet Mikael

Attached to Bet Mikael is Bet Golgotha, which is not open to women!  I always HATE this kind of rule, and don’t see why men are considered the only people holy enough to enter such places!!  So my friend Ed goes in along with Masala, who takes my camera and snaps a few pictures.  It doesn’t look like I miss that much anyway.  Apparently Bet Golgotha contains some of the best early examples of Ethiopian Christian art.

life-size depictions of seven saints are carved into the niches of Bet Golgotha’s walls

this is the priest in Bet Golgotha

We wander back outside into the sunlight, where we walk through another narrow passage cut in the rock.  We come upon Bet Uraiel, where a priest with a large cross poses with me outside of a cave opening.

outside of Bet Uraiel

the fully robed priest bearing his cross outside of Bet Uraiel

And finally, inside of a deep trench outside of Bet Golgotha and Bet Uraiel is the so-called Tomb of Adam,which is simply a giant, hollowed-out block of stone.

the “Tomb of Adam”

Me, Ed and a Lalibelan woman pose in front of the Tomb of Adam

Categories: Africa, Bet Golgotha, Bet Mikael, Bet Uraiel, Ethiopia, Lalibela, Lalibela rock-hewn churches, Tomb of Adam | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

bet maryam {& the small chapels of bet meskel & bet danaghel}

Friday, October 26:  After putting our shoes back on, we proceed through a passageway cut into solid rock to Bet Maryam, possibly the oldest of the Lalibela churches. Bet Meskel and Bet Danaghel, a semi-chapel and chapel, sit on either side of Bet Maryam like two dwarf sentinels.

Entering the stone-enclosed courtyard, we can see the eastern wall of the smaller Bet Maryam in front of us.  This wall has two sets of 3 windows each.  The upper set is said to represent the Holy Trinity.  Under this set, in the middle, is a small cross-shaped window.  The lower three windows are said to represent the Crucifixion of Jesus, with the two sinners on either side of him.  The lower right window has a small irregular shaped opening ABOVE it, a sign that this repentant sinner was accepted into heaven.  The lower left window has a small irregular shaped opening BELOW it, showing that the criminal who mocked Jesus was sentenced to hell.  Of course, the center window has a slightly larger opening above it, showing Christ’s ascension into heaven.

the eastern wall of Bet Maryam, with its symbolic windows

Bet Maryam is small, but decorated to the hilt with paintings, frescoes, and intricate carvings on the walls and ceilings.  The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who is particularly respected in Ethiopia, and is the most popular church among pilgrims.

the southern wall and doorway to Bet Maryam

In the northeast corner of the courtyard, there is an algae-covered pool known as the fertility pool, where women who had problems getting pregnant came for a dip and for a possible conception.

the fertility pool

On the northern wall, we see what looks like a Nazi swastika, but our guide Masala tells us this symbol goes in the opposite direction of the swastika and is in reality an ancient Christian symbol showing that Christ’s love goes out in every direction, to all corners of the earth.

the opposite-direction swastika symbol on the right

the entrance to Bet Maryam

Inside of Bet Maryam, the ceilings and upper walls are painted with frescoes.  The columns, capitals and arches are covered in beautifully carved details such as birds, animals, and foliage, including a 2-headed eagle and 2 fighting bulls, representing good and evil.

the priest in Bet Maryam

a colorful painting of Virgin & child in Bet Maryam

frescoes on the ceilings

frescoes and carvings on the arches

carving of the Star of David on the arch of Bet Maryam

more colorful paintings in Bet Maryam

the arches and ceilings inside Bet Maryam

one of the carved columns in Bet Maryam

Across the courtyard from the north wall of Bet Maryam is the tiny semi-chapel of Bet Meskel.  It is carved into the outer wall, and above its door are 12 arches representing the 12 disciples.

the entrance to the semi-chapel of Bet Meskel with 12 arches representing the 12 apostles

And finally, across from the south wall of Bet Maryam is the chapel of Bet Danaghel, built in memory of maiden nuns who were martyred by order of the 4th century Roman emperor, Julian in Endessa (modern-day Turkey).

the chapel of Bet Danaghel

After leaving the Bet Maryam complex, we come upon a couple of surprising little gems….

(Information about the churches comes from Lonely Planet Ethiopia & Eritrea and our guide, Masala)

Categories: Africa, Bet Danaghel, Bet Maryam, Bet Meskel, Ethiopia, Lalibela, Lalibela rock-hewn churches | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

legends of lalibela & bet medhane alem {northern group of churches}

Friday, October 26:  As soon as we deposit our bags at the hotel, we visit the northern group of churches, which include the following: Bet Medhane Alem, home to the Lalibela Cross and said to be the largest monolithic church in the world, is possibly a copy of St. Mary of Zion church in Aksum. It is linked to Bet Maryam (possibly the oldest of the churches), Bet Golgotha (known for its arts and said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela), Bet Mikael, the Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of AdamBet Meskel and Bet Danaghel, a semi-chapel and chapel.


Bet Medhane Alem (Savior of the World), said to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world, measures 33.5m by 23.5m and is over 11.5m high (approximately 110 by 77 feet and over 37 feet high).   Thirty-four large rectangular columns surround the church, and the three joined at each corner supposedly represent the Holy Trinity.  Inside, 38 columns support the gabled roof, according to Lonely Planet Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Our guide shows us three empty graves in one corner, prepared for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Cross-shaped panels pierce the walls.  This church holds the legendary 7kg gold Lalibela cross, but we aren’t afforded a glimpse of it today.

Bet Medhane Alem (Savior of the World) with its unsightly UNESCO roof & scaffolding

Legends and history of Lalibela:

According to one legend, King Lalibela was poisoned by his half-brother.  While in a three-day coma, the king was transported to heaven, where he was instructed to return to Ethiopia and build a New Jerusalem there.  Another legend says that he went into exile to Jerusalem and vowed that when he returned he would create a New Jerusalem. Others attribute the building of the churches to Templars from Europe.  Some of the holy places within the Lalibela church complex mimic the names found in Jerusalem: the River Jordan, Cavalry, and the Tomb of Adam, for instance.  The king set out to build this new Jerusalem after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land.  Lalibela flourished after the decline of the Aksum Empire.Some scholars believe that the styles, as well as the state of preservation, of the different churches vary so much, that it’s unlikely they were all built during Lalibela’s reign.

An exterior wall of Bet Medhane Alem

Some scholars estimate it would have taken a 40,000 man workforce to build the churches; local legends claim that human workers labored the daylight hours away, with celestial beings taking over for night duty, doing double the amount of labor of their human counterparts, enabling the churches to be built at astounding speed.

Bet Medhane Alem, thought to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world

Lalibela is an important place of Ethiopian Christianity, still today a place of pilgrimage and devotion.  The churches today are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  UNESCO has built rather unsightly scaffolding and roofing over many of the churches to protect their interior frescoes from water seepage, a necessary evil.

side view of Bet Medhane Alem

According to UNESCO, the churches were not constructed in a traditional way but rather were hewn from the living rock of monolithic blocks. These blocks were further chiseled 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.

a little shrine just inside the door of Bet Medhane Alem

Four of the churches were finished as completely free-standing structures, attached to their mother rock only at their bases. The remaining churches range from semi-detached to ones whose facades are the only features that have been ‘liberated’ from the rock.

one of the four aisles off the barrel-vaulted nave inside Bet Medhane Alem

Our guide for today is Masala, a young Ethiopian man who grew up in the village. He is kind and conveys so many little bits of knowledge to us, that I’m really happy we have him along.

drums used for the chanting services that are still held in the church to this day

inside Bet Medhane Alem

Today, every time we enter a church, we must leave our shoes outside.  We have a shoe minder today who follows us to each of the churches, where he sits outside and “minds” our shoes.  He glows with love and each time, as I struggle with untying and tying my  tennis shoes, he helps me put them back on my feet.

we leave our shoes outside of each church

our smiling and helpful shoe minder

Categories: Africa, Bet Medhane Alem, Ethiopia, Lalibela, Lalibela rock-hewn churches | 6 Comments

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