The historical and supernatural treasures that are embraced within the two thousand year history of the Catholic Church are truly wondrous and this story from Crisis Magazine is about one of them.
“As a dark curtain of rain drew near, my tour group made its descent down the hill, leaving the Ethiopian town of Lalibela behind us. In the distance, rows of lush green plateaus stretched out under the thunderclouds before plummeting down to the valley.
“Only one thing could cause us to look away from this tropical Grand Canyon: a giant cross jutting out from the mud-red hillside.
“Our group—myself, two couples from Chicago, and our tour guide—soon found itself on the edge of a gaping hole in the hillside. Inside was a full-sized church, hewn out of volcanic rock. A zigzag of stairs and trenches led to the Churchof St. George—or, Bet Giyorgis in Amharic (the main Ethiopian language). From the base, the 17-story church towered above us, its finely carved four columns forming a Greek cross from base to roof. With volcanic red walls scarred by yellow splotches and green stains, the church conveyed a sense of time as well as timelessness.
“We entered the church, after first removing our shoes—one of many ubiquitous holdovers from Jewish tradition that I would witness on my trip. The interior was bathed in a cave-like darkness, pierced only by shafts of light from spade-shaped windows high above us. As in other Orthodox churches in Ethiopia, there were no pews or chairs, just a mish-mash of plush carpets. What appeared to the untrained eye to be one room was actually two: the qene mahlet around the entrance, where the congregation sings hymns, and then the qeddest, where the faithful receive communion. A third room was hidden from view in the front: the maqdas, the Ethiopian equivalent of the Jewish Holy of Holies.
“It is not for nothing that St. George has been dubbed the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World.’ Were it the only rock-hewn church there, the small northern Ethiopian town would still be worth the visit. But in fact, Lalibela has not one, two, or even three such churches, but a dozen.
“How these churches of Lalibela came to be is the stuff of legend. Some modern historians have credited the Knights Templar with their construction. Ethiopian tradition, however, maintains that angels worked on the churches during the night, picking up where tired villagers had left off. Adding to the mystery is the fact that not a single tool has ever been found. “Maybe the angels took them away with them,” our guide quipped.
“In the absence of material for carbon dating, no one is even really sure how old the churches are, although tradition holds that they were built after the 12th century King Lalibela received instructions for building them during a vision in which he was taken up to heaven.
“The remaining 11 churches are clustered in two compounds elsewhere in town. Wandering through the maze of moss-covered trenches, stone archways, and tunnels that connect the churches within each group has all the thrill of a treasure hunt—but I was in it for more than the sights, as breathtaking as they were.”