I learned of Lalibela and his churches at the Lucy's Legacy exhibit at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. In addition to showcasing perhaps the second most famous female in early human history, the show provides a fascinating account of Ethiopia and its importance to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Lalibela was part of the Zagwe dynasty, which promoted a reemergence of Christianity.
King Lalibela carved the churches in a red tuff, which interbeds with thick basalts produced by the east Africa rift system. This rift setting is similar to other areas of plate breakup, which produced stone such as the diabase of Gettysburg and the brownstones of New York. In each of these rift valleys, volcanics also erupted, though no one on North America had the inspiration to carve churches in the rock.
According to the Lucy exhibit, to accomplish the task of hewing the buildings, human masons worked during the day with angels taking over the night shift. Archaeologists, however, say it took at least 150 years and not 24 years, as tradition claims. Starting at the top on arches, vaults, and ceilings and continuing without scaffolding down to the floor and doors, masons worked with picks and levers to remove the soft, porous rock.
The eleven buildings are found in the town of Lalibela, about 600 kilometers north of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. They form two groups divided by the River Jordan, though the most remarkable structure, Bete Giyorgis (the House of St. George), sits a few hundred yards away from the northern group. Shaped like a Greek cross, it is freestanding in the center of a square shaft measuring 22 by 23 meters. South of the river, Bete Amannuel is also a single monolith, 18 meters tall and 12 meters wide on each side. Inside many of the churches were elaborate paintings of geometrical patterns, animals, and Bibilical scenes.
Despite having been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, the buildings and paintings have suffered in the harsh climate and unfavorable geologic conditions (easily weathered clay minerals and weak layers in the tuff). To slow the deterioration, temporary shelters have been built, though they are neither handsome nor completely protective. Perhaps we need another swarm of bees to inspire new shelters.