Christians Who Changed Their World

Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (r.1181-1221)

Christianity comes to ancient Ethiopia
The Kingdom of Axum in what is now Ethiopia converted to Christianity in around 300 AD, under the influence of the missionary bishop Frumentius and Axum’s king Ezana. The Axumite kingdom continued as a Christian kingdom, though Muslim expansion into Egypt cut it off from its patriarchate in Alexandria and from the Latin West and the Byzantine Empire.

The Axumite kingdom came to an end when Gudit or Yodit (Judith) overthrew the king, attempted to exterminate the royal family, and set herself up as queen in 960. Little is known about her, though she might have been part of the Beta Israel, native Ethiopian Jews who date back to the period before Ezra. Alternately, she may have been a pagan. One way or another, she was no friend of Christianity: she destroyed churches and monuments and seems to have been bent on ending Christianity in the area.

Gudit’s successors ruled Ethiopia until they were overthrown in 1137 by Mara Takla Haymanot, the founder of the Zagwe dynasty. To solidify his claim to the throne, Mara married a member of the royal family of Axum. The Zagwe dynasty also returned the kingdom to its 800 year old Christian tradition, and despite considerable pressure from Islam, Ethiopia has remained a largely Christian country to this day.

Lalibela’s unlikely ascent to the throne
The most famous member of the Zagwe dynasty was Gebre Mesqel Lalibela. Lalibela was born in Roha, the Zagwe capital, which was later renamed Lalibela after him. Legend says a swarm of bees surrounded him at his birth and landed on him without stinging him, and so he was named Lalibela, which means “bees obey him.” His mother took this as a prophecy that he would become emperor of Ethiopia. Not surprisingly, this did not make him popular with other members of his family. The king and his brother, one of Lalibela’s uncles, sent him into exile, and he was nearly poisoned by his half-sister.

As a young man, Lalibela claimed to have had visions and spent some time as a hermit. In 1180, he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which was then in the hands of the Crusaders. During this period, Lalibela’s half-brother Harba was on the throne. The Ethiopian clergy were unhappy with him because of his diplomatic contacts with the papacy. Evidently, they feared Roman interference into their church’s affairs. When Lalibela returned from his pilgrimage in 1181, the clergy urged him to take the throne from Harba. He reluctantly agreed, and so he became king of Ethiopia.

Lalibela took the name Gebre Mesqel (Servant of the Cross) and began his reign with an extended fast. He attempted to rule as a Christian monarch, emphasizing peace and charity. He worked to secure his borders and to maintain good relations with Saladin, the premier leader in the Muslim world. He wanted to protect Ethiopian Christians in Muslim territories, and his positive relations with Saladin helped secure their safety.

On the other hand, Lalibela was on the throne in 1187 when Saladin destroyed the armies of the Crusader states at the Horns of Hattin and then conquered Jerusalem. Lalibela was concerned that the fall of the city would make pilgrimage increasingly difficult for his people.

A Christian king and his works
Lalibela decided that he needed to recreate the city of Jerusalem in his capital city. The city’s river was re-named the Jordan, and a number of other locations were given biblical names. Most importantly, however, Lalibela commissioned the building of a network of rock-hewn churches connected by an intricate system of tunnels that were intended to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem.

There are a total of eleven rock-hewn churches in Roha/Lalibela. These are all monolithic churches, meaning that they are carved from a single rock rather than built of stone masonry. The craftsmen carved a wide trench in the bedrock around the four sides of the churches, and then went to work with hammers and chisels to carve out the church building itself, including doors, windows, moldings, crosses, etc. The roofs are level with the ground, and the entrances are reached by staircases down to the level of the excavated courtyard.

Each church is unique, though they follow the design of Axumite churches. The northern group includes the largest monolithic church in the world, Bete Adhane Alem (House of the Savior of the World). This church is believed to be a copy of the Cathedral of St. Mary of Mt. Zion in Axum, where the Ethiopian church believes the biblical Ark of the Covenant is housed.

Bete Adhane Alem is linked by tunnels and walkways to Bete Maryam (House of St. Mary), which may the oldest of the churches. A line of geometrically carved windows in the east wall of Bete Maryam illuminate the church’s copy of the Ark of the Covenant. The church also includes a number of painted decorations. Also in the northern group is Bete Golgotha, which includes life size carvings of saints and the tomb of Emperor Lalibela. The Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam complete the northern set of churches.

Several churches in the eastern group may be older than the other churches, at least in origin. There is some speculation that some of them predate Lalibela by 500 years and had been used earlier on as government buildings. This set includes Bete Amanuel, which may have been a royal chapel, Bete Merkorios, which may have originated as a prison, Bete Gabriel-Rufael, possibly a former royal palace, and Bete Abba Libanos, a church built by Lalibela’s widow in his honor.

The best preserved and most spectacular of the churches is Bete Giyorgis (House of St. George). Located to the west, this was probably the last church completed. It stands 40 feet high, making it the tallest of the churches, and is in the shape of a Greek cross.

In addition to the churches in Roha/Lalibela proper, twelve miles away is the eleventh century Yemrehanna Kristos church, built in the style of Axumite churches but constructed in a cave.

As if the churches themselves were not impressive enough, Lalibela also built wells at many of the churches fed by artesian springs that bring water up to the ridge on which the city is built. This feat of engineering makes Hezikiah’s tunnel in old Jerusalem look like child’s play in comparison.

The monolithic churches at Roha/Lalibela are so amazing that a variety of legends have grown up around them. One popular legend says that angels worked on them at night when the workers went home. Bete Maryam contains a pillar on which it is said Lalibela carved the secrets of the churches’ construction, though the pillar is kept covered and so no one really knows what is on it except perhaps the monks at the church. Some people have suggested that the Knights Templar were involved in their construction, but there is no evidence that they were and the Ethiopian designs of the buildings effectively refute that claim. Records do indicate that foreign workers were involved in their construction, but given the artistic work they were most likely Copts from Egypt.

Lalibela’s reign after he began building the churches was not very smooth, though the scarcity of primary sources makes it difficult to get clear information about his years as king. The official version of events states that his principal wife convinced him to abdicate in favor of his nephew Na’akueto La’ab, the son of Harba whom Lalibela had deposed. After eighteen months, however, some of Na’akueto La’ab’s soldiers took a poor farmer’s only cow for the king’s dinner table; this kind of abusive behavior led Lalibela to take back the throne, again at the urging of his wife, and give it to his own son Yetbarak. This story may mask intrigue and dissatisfaction with Lalibela’s rule that led Na’aketo La’ab to stage a coup; he in turn was overthrown by Yetbarak. Alternately, it could represent the two of them jockeying for power in the waning years of Lalibela’s life.

Either way, Lalibela was revered as a saint and after his death was canonized by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Roha was re-named after him, and his churches became the second most important pilgrimage destination in Ethiopia after Axum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. His career shows the union of church and state, sacred and secular that was part of Ethiopia’s Christian heritage, and his vision and the construction of the complex at Lalibela is a testimony to the artistic and engineering genius of medieval Ethiopia.

Next Steps

Do you ever think in terms of a lasting legacy that you might leave behind? Given that you don’t have Lalibela’s advantages, what might your legacy look like? Think in terms of people...


Further Reading:
Does this article intrigue you about a place you don’t hear much about? Read
The Evangelical Movement in Ethiopia: Resistance and Resilience, written by a native son. You can purchase this book through the Colson Center Online Bookstore. For something in the same vein but shorter, go to the Colson Center Library and read “Ethiopia: The Country Blessed of God.”

(1 Pet. 3:15).


Republished from March 5, 2010

Next Steps

Make it your mission to re-enchant the world, at least that part of it that you occupy week-in and week-out. You may be surprised to find that your enchanted lifestyle has begun to enchant some of your disenchanted neighbors and friends.

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