Tag Archives: rock-hewn churches

Living Stones, Praying within Hewn Living Stone

My driver, Alex and local tour guide invited me to attend morning prayer with them at Golgotha chapel in the church complex I toured the day before. The Ethiopians do not follow the Gregorian calendar when setting the dates of feasts. Today was the Solemnity of the Annunciation in our calendar but in their calendar it was the Feast of Mary: Promise of Mercy. The Ethiopians have a deep veneration of the Virgin Mary.



As we approached the complex it was so different. This morning the dusty hillside was covered in white.

We entered through this tunnel that gives access to the church.

There was an excitement in the air however I keep saying to my guide: “Do not lose me.” There was a crush of people; however everyone was respectful.

We were working our way to the chapel to the church where there were continual prayers being offered and chanted in different locations.

The sound of these ancient chants was mesmerizing and I was caught in prayer even though I understood no word. The ancient chants of the church whether they are Greek, Ethiopic or Latin move my soul.

The priest came towards me with the cross and was not sure if he should extend it to me for veneration. My driver spoke to him and with a smile he extended the cross for me to venerate. He then returned with a book wrapped in silk on his head. I asked what is that. My local guide said: The Miracles of Mary and he is taking them to be read to the people outside. So we followed him.

The priest read followed by energetic preaching then all of a sudden we turned our attention away from the preacher. Once again I asked: What are we doing? to which he responded we are facing east because we are praying and we always pray facing the east, ad orientem. That made my spirit soar. To pray ad orientem as the early Christians prayed.

Priests are everywhere extending the cross for veneration.

Then I saw people with bowls of ash which I found out was the ash from the incense burnt at morning Mass from which people impose ashes on their foreheads.

Notice that my local guide on the right has ashes on his forehead.

We then began a 40-minute drive to Yemrehanna Kristos. This is different in that it is not hewn out of rock but rather built more than 60 years earlier than the churches of Lalibela. My guide pointed out that in many ways this church which is an excellent example of late Aksumite style, is the blueprint for Lalibela.

Some tracery of saints on the exterior.

The windows alternate between marble and wood with multiple cross designs: Greek, Latin, Maltese, Saint Andrew, which teach the people there are Christians outside Ethiopia.

The priest proudly displayed the church cross.

On our return we began the exploration of what is called the southeastern cluster.

My guide pointed out the the thin sloping path of hewn rock is the path to heaven. If you can walk without falling it means you have no sin. I asked, have you tried this, to which responded with a smiled: as a boy.

I decided not to try.


We entered the church of Bet Gabriel and Rafael.

The original door is of olive wood.

Going through a series of dark tunnels we emerged at Bet Merkurios. In fact it is pitch black. My guide said keep your right hand on the wall and left on the ceiling. He called it the descent into hell to which I responded: a people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. [Is. 9:2] Perhaps this was the most delightful in that every facet of architecture led to theological discussion.

This is so faded but these are beautiful 16th century paintings on canvas.

Our journey through tunnels continued until we reached Bet Emanuel which is a finely carved church.

Notice the rock on the left. This is the rock from which the church was hewn.

More steps…

And more tunnels!

To reach Bet Abba Libanos. Notice from this side view only floor and roof remain attached to the rock.

My guide pointed out the angel eyes on the corner of the capital

We climbed out of the complex to see Golgotha.

And Transfiguration. Remember the whole complex was designed to be a place to pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

We made our way to Bet Giyorgis, the masterpiece of rock hewn churches. The structure is a perfect Greek cross with no internal pillars as my guide pointed out. I was awestruck.

We began our journey this way to the church.

This is a view of saint George church from a hill. This gives a good perspective of how the church was hewn from the rock.

My guide said the church is like Noah’s ark with three stories.

Notice he said the trench symbolizes the flight of the dove and the rock in the corner of Mount Ararat where the ark came to rest. I told him when I am in Turkey I will send him a picture of Mount Ararat.

The grass is floating over holy water. On the final fast day of Lent the priest will bring you a piece of grass like this and you tie it around your head.

My guide invited me to come back because there are many more churches and monasteries to discover. Late in the evening I said goodbye to two traveling companions who have been with me a through the Middle East and the Holy Land. They have found their final resting place. And then to my multiple pairs of socks are worn out.

I must admit I am worn out a bit too. However coming home to Ethiopia 40 years later has been for me a journey that will only lead to further journeys to Ethiopia to discover our rich Christian heritage.

I am flying on to Budapest for Holy Week and then on to Vienna to spend Easter with my family. After that I will continue on to Romania to explore the painted monasteries and churches and then on to the Silk Road in Central Asia.

Lalibela: The Mystery of Faith Hewn from Living Stone

King Lalibela (1181-1221) moved the capital from Aksum to here. When he was born his mother saw a swarm of honey bees around his mouth revealing that he would be a holy man so named him “Honey Eater” that is Lalibela. He made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and so on his return he decided to carve churches out of living stone and create a Holy Land in his Kingdom where his people could pilgrimage. The site is impressive and has been declared by UNESCO a World Heritage site http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/18 so UNESCO built roofs over the structures to prevent further deterioration and continue to finance its restoration. These churches continue to be the center of Ethiopian spiritual life. My guide is excellent.

The best way to unfold this mystery in stone is to have you walk with me through the wonder of creativity and imagination.

I entered the northwestern complex of churches and encountered Bet Medhane Alem, House of the Savior of the World. The massive structure is overwhelming
when you realize these are not constructed but hewn out of rock.

Descending to the church of the Savior of all Nations. This is a monolithc church carved out of stone. He traced out the design on the stone ground then excavated. Then he excavated by carving a door then worked from bottom up to carve out the interior.

This is the rock from which the church was hewn. The fallen column is original. Some columns have been replaced. The guide pointed out there are 72 columns that represented the 72 disciples the Lord sent out: 34 outside and 38 inside that support a central barrel vault and four flat roofed side aisles.

This is rock from which the structure was carved out.

The door and window were hewn and modeled after Aksumite architecture. Good detail of door; columns are not original. They collapsed during an earthquake.


CarvedChurches1-7A collapsed original column.

Another view of the stone from which the church was hewn.

These are original columns. On each corner are three columns representing the Trinity. Each corner represents an evangelist.


This gives a good contrast of an old column on right and new on left. Notice that the windows are hewn out of rock. Good detail of windows carved out from within.

Entry into church.

Good view of the hewn capitals.


The flat vault.


The three carved tombs representing the tombs of of abraham issac and jacob.

This is the tunnel that leads to Bet Maryam which is a perfectly proportioned church.

On the eastern wall are three windows representing the Trinity. In the middle series of windows you see a cross which represents the descent of the Word into the womb of Mary represented by the third window, and the final window symbolizing the cross of crucifixion. Now to the left is the cross of the good thief.

And to the left the cross of the bad thief. Can you see the detail that makes this distinction?

Right cross.

To the north is the very small chapel Bet Meskel dedicated to the Holy Cross. Notice 12 arcades representing the 12 apostles; and the large stone represents Sinai.

In the flat vault is the cross.

CarvedChurches1-24A priest proudly displays a blessing cross in the chapel.

I am leaving Bet Maryam to cross over to Bet Danaghel which commemorates the martyrdom of nuns at Edessa in the 3rd century by Julian.

 In the interior of Bet Maryam is column that is wrapped in white. This represents the pillar of fire in the desert. There are Greek, Hebrew and Geez inscriptions.

 Interior of Bet Danaghel.

CarvedChurches1-30I entered Bet Golgotha. Notice the unique cruciform columns.


CarvedChurches1-32 A carved apostle.

CarvedChurches1-34Tomb of Adam

The tomb of Adam under Golgotha.

This is the original entrance to King Lalibela’s New Jerusalem. He made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and came back and created a place of pilgrimage modelled on Jerusalem.

CarvedChurches1-37That afternoon went to Bet Naakuto Laab, built in a cave by a newphew of Lalibela.

Stone bells


Incense basket


Local priest