Lalibela Churches: Carved from a Single Rock

In the town of Lalibela, in northern Ethiopia stand the largest monolithic churches in the world. The churches were carved out of a single giant (“monolithic”) rock, and have no bricks, no stones and no mortar bond.

The Lalibela churches—eleven in total—were built 900 years ago, in the 12th century, during the reign of King Lalibela of the Zagwe Kingdom, in his attempt to create a “New Jerusalem”. However, some researchers believe that three of the eleven churches may have actually been built nearly 1400 years ago near the end of the Aksumite Empire.

While most structures in the world are constructed from the ground up, these eleven churches were carved from the ground down. Builders would initially dig a trench around a single giant block of rock, and then carve and chisel, externally and internally, designing and bringing into existence doors, windows, columns, internal space, floors, roofs, and eventually, a majestic church.

Each church has a different style. The largest church, Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Savior of the World), is 11 meters high, 33 meters long and 23 meters wide.  It is held up by 36 rectangular pillars around the outside and another 36 on the inside. Biete Giyorgis (Church of Saint George) is carved in the shape of a cross (when viewed from the top). All churches are connected by passageways that are 11 meters underground.

The Lalibela church complex is still in use today, 900 years later, serving as a pilgrimage site with 100,000 members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church visiting annually, and it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The churches are an engineering marvel, and are among the finest examples of ancient rock-cut architecture in the world.

By Rahim Mawji

(Image: Ethpress; Oddcities; Playbuzz)

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