Rock-hewn churches at Lalibela, Ethiopia

After spending most of the day walking the narrow, rock-cut passageways below ground level that characterize the northern group of churches in Lalibela, it seems odd to have wide-open space and mountain air surrounding us as I stroll toward the Church of St. George, or Bete Giyorgis as it is called in Amharic.  But it is refreshing at the same time and adds to the anticipation for what I am about to see.

As I look down from the vantage point to the perfectly-carved roof in the shape of a cross, it is easy to understand how the church was artfully constructed: a deep and wide trench was dug into the earth creating a central monolith, and then the church was carved out of the rock left standing.  Continuing down to the base of the sanctuary on a spiral rock-cut path, I pause at the front façade to take in its grandeur. The reddish hue of the limestone is accented by chartreuse-colored lichen growing in patches. Thanks to some sage advice from our guide, our timing is perfectly synced with sunset, so the colors are even more pronounced and vibrant.  Cast against the building wall, my shadow and those of my fellow travelers look like a mini caravan stretched across a desert landscape.

According to legend, after King Lalibela finished constructing ten rock-hewn churches at Lalibela, St. George was so upset that there was no church dedicated to him that he personally paid the king a visit to settle the issue. King Lalibela was remorseful and so he promised to build the most beautiful church for the saint. Legend aside, I think few would contest that Bete Giyorgis hit the mark!

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