A Mystical Vision Inspired These Old Churches Carved Entirely Out of Rock

Henrik Berger Jørgensen, Flickr

In the small, rural town of Lalibela, Ethiopia, you can find what some people call the Eighth Wonder of the World: an amazing complex of intricate churches carved entirely of the native rock in the ground.

And the reason behind their construction was based on a mystical vision in response to a terrible catastrophe for Christendom in the 12th century.

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They were commissioned by the local King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, who is revered as a saint by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to this day. There are 11 of them in total, and scholars believe they were carved in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.

Here is the Church of Saint George, named after the saintly king, the best preserved of the churches:

oarranzli, Flickr
oarranzli, Flickr
From above / Stuart Orford, Flickr
From above / Stuart Orford, Flickr

Their dating to the 12th century is important to determining their purpose, since something else really important happened in the Christian world in the late 12th century: the holy city Jerusalem was captured by the Muslim leader Saladin.

Around the same time, the King had a mystical vision of Jerusalem, and he put together a two part plan. First, he’d turn his capital city into a new Jerusalem. He ordered the churches to be built to represent key areas of the city based on his vision.

The second part of his plan was to have another complex of churches nearby to represent the heavenly city of Jerusalem.

But why did they have to be carved completely out of stone? Why choose a method that was so difficult, when churches could easily be built on the ground in the normal fashion? Apparently the King ordered the difficult method as an act of humility.

Here’s a 15th century icon of saintly King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela:

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a map of the complex:

Public Domain, Wikipedia
Public Domain, Wikipedia

The northern set of churches is the earthly Jerusalem, whereas the southeastern set is the heavenly Jerusalem. Also, notice that the complexes are connected by a system of tunnels. The complex is still preserved and used by Ethiopian Orthodox priests to this very day.

One of the churches, Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Savior of the World), is believed to be the largest church in the world carved out of a single piece of rock.

Here’s a look at that one:

Jens Klinzing, Wikipedia
Jens Klinzing, Wikipedia
Julien Demade, Wikipedia
Julien Demade, Wikipedia

Here are some more pictures of other churches in the complex:

Bernard Gagnon, Wikipedia
Bernard Gagnon, Wikipedia
Bernard Gagnon, Wikipedia
Bernard Gagnon, Wikipedia
Bernard Gagnon, Wikipedia
Bernard Gagnon, Wikipedia

[See also: 16 Churches So Beautiful They’ll Take Your Breath Away]

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