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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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)