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Ethiopia: Lalibela Northern Cluster

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Lalibela Northern Cluster | Ethiopia | Africa

[Visited: October 2006]

Originally constructed as a New Jerusalem after the capture by Muslims, names of several places in Lalibela still carry the name of places in the Holy Land after King Lalibela spent some time in Jerusalem. The world famous rock-hewn churches are divided in three groups, the northern and the southern cluster separated by a small stream called the Jordan river. After you buy or show your tickets at the entrance, you soon descend in the underworld of Lalibela. The churches have all been carved out of the rocky surface, and once you are down, you are in a totally different world, without any connection to the present. Just by going down, you step back centuries. Singing comes out of the church, so I walk around the outside of the church, awe-struck by the magnitude of the building. Centuries ago, King Lalibela and his helpers (angels, according to traditional legend) dug deep trenches in the rock here, and subsequently carved out this enormous church. Bet Methane Alem is also home to the Lalibela Cross.

Picture of Lalibela Northern Cluster (Ethiopia): Bet Medhane Alem seen from above

After walking around this largest monolithic rock-hewn church in the world, the guide motions that I can follow him. Inside, the church gives the impression of a cathedral, with a high ceiling, pillars, with graves carved in the floor. Even though simple in design, the church amazes by its size. From here, a short tunnel leads to Bet Maryam, probably the oldest church in town. It is a smaller, more elaborate monolithic church. Outside, a small pool covered with floating plants in which infertile women are dipped during Ethiopian Christmas, and in the rock walls contain two small chapels. Bet Maryam itself is one of the finest decorated churches in Lalibela, carvings in the ceiling, the walls and the columns. One of its pillars covered in a veil - under it, there supposedly are inscriptions with the Ten Commandments in Greek and Ge'ez, as well as the secret of how the churches in Lalibela were excavated. Priests insist that the pillar glowed for centuries, and that lifting the veil is too dangerous. While this is bad news for researchers, it further adds to the mystery surrouding the Lalibela churches.

Picture of Lalibela Northern Cluster (Ethiopia): Pillar of Bet Maryam, with Ten Commandments and story of excavations hidden by veil

After the marvels of Bet Maryam and the chapels of Bet Meskel and Bet Danaghel, a short walk through tunnels and deep trenches takes you to Bet Mikael and Bet Golgotha. Outside, you can see finely carved windows, inside you will find darker churches with low ceilings. Bet Golgotha has seven reliefs of saints carved life-size into its walls, with some sparse daylight falling through the tiny windows. One of the many legends surrounding the churches in Lalibela holds that King Lalibela himself has a grave in Bet Golgotha. These churches, a little further away from the larger ones of this group, offer a more peaceful experience with less people around.

Picture of Lalibela Northern Cluster (Ethiopia): Bet Medhane Alem seen from the front
Picture of Lalibela Northern Cluster (Ethiopia): Symbolical windows in the eastern wall of Bet Maryam
Picture of Lalibela Northern Cluster (Ethiopia): Finely carved windows in Bet Mikael church
Picture of Lalibela Northern Cluster (Ethiopia): Bet Maryam: decorations embellishing the ceilingq
Picture of Lalibela Northern Cluster (Ethiopia): Decorations in the rocky ceiling of Bet Maryam
Picture of Lalibela Northern Cluster (Ethiopia): Carved out false window with decorations in Bet Maryam
Picture of Lalibela Northern Cluster (Ethiopia): Close-up of decorations on arch in Bet Maryam
Picture of Lalibela Northern Cluster (Ethiopia): Priest walking out of Bet Medhane Alem before starting service
Picture of Lalibela Northern Cluster (Ethiopia): Bet Golgotha: interior with priest
Picture of Lalibela Northern Cluster (Ethiopia): Bet Medhane Alem: door in the rocky wall
Picture of Lalibela Northern Cluster (Ethiopia): Saint carved into the wall of Bet Golgotha
Picture of Lalibela Northern Cluster (Ethiopia): Elaborately carved cross in the wall of Bet Maryam
Picture of Lalibela Northern Cluster (Ethiopia): Cross carved into a pillar of Bet Maryam

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