Holy Lands of the World Lalibela or Ancient Roha

About the Holy Land Lalibela or ancient Roha in Ethiopia a sacred place in the Ethiopian Christian religion, history and information.


In the wilds of northern Ethiopia, in Wallo Province, there is a small town named for Lalibela, a pious Christian monarch of the 12th century. According to local legend, he is responsible for the town's amazing rock-hewn churches, 11 in all, built by divine command and with the aid of angels. There is scarcely any other explanation for the incredible complex of shrines carved in the solid pink rock encircled by trenches. In a maze of tunnels and galleries, 4 of these buildings are literally monolithic, hewn from single chunks of rock freed by digging deep trenches around each of them.

Largest of this group is the Church of the World's Redeemer, which is 109' long by c. 75' wide, and it is set 35' deep in the rock so that its roof is level with the ground. Inside are 5 arched aisles. Emanuel's Church imitates the ancient "sandwich wall" style, aternating layers of wood and stone. Painted, flowerlike designs on the ceilings are a feature of the Church of St. Mary's, and its cruciform shape distinguishes the elegant Church of St. George. Every one of Lalibela's churches is still in daily use. They are served by 1,000 Coptic priests, since the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia is closely related to the Egyptian Coptic Church.

In 1966, Princess Hirut Desta organized the Ethopian Committee for the Restoration and Preservation of the Churches of Lalibela. An international team worked 4 years to repair the ravages of 8 centuries and reveal the original contours of the holy city.

Lalibela is known as the "New Jerusalem," with its population of 9,000, which is tripled by throngs of pilgrims during major religious holidays. Beating drums, shaking rattles, chanting voices mark these occasions when visitors cram the sunken courtyards of the underground churches, or shop and exchange gossip. Brightly garbed debteras, a lay religious order unique to Ethiopia, perform ritual dances.

There are 14,000 churches in Ethiopia, with clergy numbering a quarter of a million. It all started c. 330 A.D. when King Ezana of Aksum, capital of early rulers, was converted to Christianity by Bishop Frumentius. Ethiopian Christians have clung to their faith though isolated from the West by surrounding Muslim states. In the 16th century, Muslim invaders destroyed hundreds of medieval churches, which were later rebuilt, but they could not tear down those carved out of the mountain. The rock-hewn sanctuaries of Lalibela, with their unique architectural charm, symbolize a nation's enduring faith.

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