The 11 churches at Lalibela, Ethiopia, are regarded as one of the wonders of the world, excavated from solid rock with an immense underground maze of tunnels and passages. There are two main groups of churches, with another church dedicated to Saint George a short distance away.
Ethiopian tradition connects the churches with the most famous King Lalibela of the Zagwe dynasty, and the town, formerly known as Roha, has come to be known by that king's name. The Life of Lalibela describes how King Lalibela (who ruled from the late 12th to the early 13th centuries) was carried away to the heavenly Jerusalem. There he was instructed to build the churches. Angels worked beside his men as they cut each one from the rock, and then kept working through the night. However, the style in which the churches were made is remarkably similar to the surviving architecture of ancient Aksum, and scholars have become intrigued by the possibility that some of the churches could be much older than the reign of Lalibela. Some of them may also have been constructed as palaces rather than as churches. They do not all follow the conventional alignment of churches to the east.
After the death of Lalibela his tomb and the city itself began to draw thousands of pilgrims. Although his Dynasty was overthrown, Lalibela is still revered as a saint. The churches are seen as a New Jerusalem, with a river named Jordan and sites corresponding to the holy places of the great city. According to an Ethiopian saying: "If you do not wish to see Lalibela, you are like someone who has no desire to see the face of Christ."
Source: Microsoft Encarta Africana. ©1999 Microsoft Corporation. Used with permission.
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