Nestled comfortably in the northern highlands of Lasta are the extraordinary rock- hewn churches of Lalibela, which are mystically carved out of s olid volcanic rocks. Power shifted from the Axumite Empire to the Zagwe Dynasty who ruled Ethiopia from Lasta towards the end of the 12th century AD. Its most important ruler was King Lalibela (1181 – 1221AD), renowned for the rock-hewn churches, which he built at the capital Roha in the 13th Century. The capital Roha was later changed to bear his name, Lalibela.
There are no more than 100 churches in the Lasta region of Lalibela some hidden in enormous caves, but it is exceptional to find eleven churches of such master craftsmanship in one locale. These brilliant feats of engineering and architecture are often referred to us the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Hewn directly out of the solid red volcanic rock on which they stand, the Lalibela churches are connected by a network of tunnels and narrow passageways with offsets, grottos and galleries – a though-provoking peaceful and silent subterranean world, except the faint echoes of distant footfalls of priests and deacons that offer around their timeless prayers.
Four of the Lalibela churches are completely Rock-hewn monolithic just like a built-up structure but are cut in one piece from the rock and separated form it all round by a trench. These are Beta Medhane Alem (The House of the Savior of the World), Beta Mariam (the House of Mary), Beta Amanuel (the House of the Emanuel) and Beta Ghiorghis (the House of St. George). The most popular and magnificent of all the monolithic churches is the church of St. George. To build this church bed-rock was hacked out to form a trench of 40 feet deep; then the huge block of stone at the center was carved into the shaped of a cross; and finally , the structure was hollowed out and decorated. The largest, Bete Medhane Alem, is 100 feet long, 70 feet wide, 35 feet high, and has rock walls that are up to six feet thick. Its basilica has five naves. This particular church is thought to be a copy of th e great cathedral of St. Mary of Zion, built in the ancient city of Axum in the 4th century AD.
The other seven rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are not very monolithic though they demonstrate various degrees of separation from the surrounding volcanic tuff. It took Lalibela 23 years to construct all the churches and all the churches have surprisingly remained inuse to this day. The legendary intervention of angels is also widely believed in the creation of Lalibla’s wonders. As described by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher authors of African Ark, ‘The techniques that made possible the excavation and chiseling of stone on so dramatic a scale, and with such perfection, have long been lost. Nevertheless, this was undoubtedly a human achievement and also a peculiarly Ethiopian achievement: our world contains nothing else quite like the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.