The 11 amazing rock-hewn churches in the town of Lalibela were built in the 13th century, during the reign of King Lalibela.

By John Longhurst (Winnipeg Free Press) |

In 2017, Protestants are marking the 500th anniversary of Reformation. It seems like a big deal, until you visit Ethiopia and meet members of a church that traces its origins as far back as 2,000 years ago.

Ethiopian Christians date the origin of their church back to the baptism of the Ethiopian court official by Phillip, as recorded in the book of Acts. There are also suggestions the apostle Matthew preached in Ethiopia. But it wasn’t until the fourth century that Christianity was declared the state religion.

Today, this ancient tradition is kept alive through churches scattered throughout the country, in cities and towns, on island and hilltop monasteries — and especially in the city of Lalibela, one of the holiest cities for the Orthodox faithful.

I was able to visit Lalibela and its 11 amazing rock-hewn churches in February while on a trip to visit Canadian Foodgrains Bank projects in Ethiopia.

The churches were built in the 13th century, during the reign of King Lalibela. According to legend, an angel gave him a vision to build a second Jerusalem in Ethiopia following his visit to the original Jerusalem. Also according to legend, it took only 23 years to build the churches because humans worked during the day, and angels worked at night.

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What makes the churches so astounding is that they were built from the top down, not from the bottom up like other buildings. The ancient carvers, working entirely by hand, dug deep into the volcanic rock to create large trenches around huge blocks of stone. They then tunneled into these blocks, creating rooms with columns, cornices, arches, windows and doors.

Traces of foreign influences can be found in the churches, such as Maltese crosses and swastikas, which are associated with India. Either there were carvers from afar who helped build the churches, or travelers brought back ideas from foreign lands.

Of all the churches, Biete Ghiorgis, or House of St. George, is my favorite. Carved in the shape of a cross some distance from the others, the roof is flush with the mountainside but the door is many meters down below.

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