The king behind the Rock-Hewn Churches
The first question that came to my mind after discovering the Rock-Hewn churches was, who could have possibly thought about it in the first place? What was the Story and motivation behind it? Couldn’t imagine how hard the construction must have been to carve the stones without the construction mechanisms and machines we have today. The reason must have been bigger than just constructing a building. What Lead to all this? I set out to answer those questions, which meant I had to learn about King Lalibela.
The year was 1162 AD when the soon-to-be Emperor of Ethiopia; Gebre Meskel was born at Roha. It is widely believed his birth was an uncommon one as he was surrounded by bees, which his mother took as a sign of his future reign. Following the incident, he was given the name Lalibela which meant “the bees recognize his sovereignty”. Due to this prophecy, his brother, Emperor Harbay became jealous of him, which caused Lalibela, as he matured, to leave and become a hermit in the mountainous region of Tigray. During his stay in Tigray, he met his wife Mesqel Kibra, or “glory of the cross”.
During this time, the isolated Ethiopian empire was beginning to make overtures to the West, having Pope Alexander III as an alliance. Upon hearing what his brother was up to, Lalibela returned to Roha with his supporters and forced Emperor Harbay to abdicate the throne. It is believed that The Ethiopian Tewadeho Church helped Lalibela ascend the throne. Lalibela took the name Gebre Meskal or “servant of the cross” at his coronation as Emperor of Ethiopia.
After his reign, Roha was renamed to Lalibela after him and become the capital city of Ethiopia and the Zagwe dynasty. His reign, which lasted forty years, faced some challenges from the nobles in Shewa and Tigray as well as Muslims who were encroaching upon the land. Without question, his greatest achievement came to be the construction of the Rock-Hewn Churches.
The inception of The Rock-Hewn churches began with his vision of Jerusalem. Lalibela is said to have seen Jerusalem in a vision following the capture of old Jerusalem by Muslims in 1187, resulting in the construction of the Churches. According to the narrative of the Portuguese embassy to Ethiopia in 1520-6, written down by Father Francisco Álvares and published in 1540, the Lalibelian priests claimed that the churches took 24 years to construct. They said that King Lalibela ordered this to be done. It is said that King Lalibela built ten of the churches, and his wife built the eleventh one in his honor, Bet Abba Libanos.
Although little is known about how his reign ended, He was made a saint by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church after his death. In order to truly understand the Rock-Hewn Churches, it is necessary to go back in time and look at the fascinating story of King Lalibela. To this day, The Rock-Hewn churches continue to be amongst the wonders of the world and King Lalibela continues to be remembered through them.