LALIBELA Part 1
The town of Lalibela is in northern Ethiopia, and is one of the oldest of Christian pilgrim destinations in the world. It was somewhat with this same sense of pilgrimage that I also traveled to that place. Before I tell you about the city however, I need to go into a little of the history of how it became this center of worship.
Very early in history, even before the birth of Christ, there were established communities of people in Ethiopia who had converted to Judaism and practiced thier faith according to the Mosaic Law. The exact origins of these communities are unknown and shrouded with many theories, but there even remains those of the Jewish faith in Ethiopia today, although many had emigrated to Israel in the 20th century under Israel's Law of Return.
When we move ahead in history from the Old Testament times to the second century after Christ, we come also to the time of the establishment of the city of Lalibela. Even a great deal of this history is unknown to us, and much is open to the interpretation of whatever historian one cares to read. However, the general consensus is that the city began its role as a site of pilgrimage for Christians during the reign of the King of the region of that time, one Gebre Mesqel Lalibela. The first two of these names literally mean, “Servant of the Cross,” for Lalibela was born into a Christian home in the year 1162.
At that time, Ethiopia was not an established nation as it is today, but the region of Ethiopia has been well recognized from ancient times. We have in the Bible, for instance, the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who was a court official to Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians (Acts 8:27). This Ethiopian had been to Jerusalem to worship, and apparently at the point of the story in the Bible, was on his return trip to Ethiopia. As he traveled in his chariot, he was reading from the book of Isaiah, but could not understand the meaning of the Scripture. It was then that God called the early evangelist Phillip to explain to him the meaning of what he was reading.
This and other stories give us an indication that there was an early Christian community that began in Ethiopia, a community of whom we have little written history. By the second century, the Christians seem to have become well established in Ethiopia. As a result, the man Lalibela was born to Christian parents.
|15th Century painting of
As with any well-known man or woman of early history, the accounts of the life of Lalibela is are a combination of fact and legend, and it is often difficult to differentiate between the two. However, even legends are often based on true events, so there is benefit in learning even the legends. One of the legends concerning Lalibela, is that at his birth, a swarm of bees descended and surrounded the infant. If this would happen to you as a mom, you may scream in terror, but Lalibela’s mother interpreted it as being a sign that the boy would one day be the Emperor of Ethiopia. It was because of this that his mother bestowed upon him the third name, "Lalibela." This name means, "the bees recognize his sovereignty."
It is also widely accepted that Lalibela lived part of his youth in the Holy Land, and had visited and come to know the city of Jerusalem during his younger years. So deeply moved was he by his experience there, that it became his desire to build a spiritual replica of Jerusalem in Ethiopia when he would return there.
Part of his motivation for this was, knowing most of the Christians from his homeland could not realistically ever travel to Jerusalem, he wanted to establish somewhat of a replica of Jerusalem, or perhaps better said, a spiritual representation of the city, so that the early Christians of Ethiopia could instead make their pilgrimage to that place.
The result is a city unlike any in the world. The buildings of this portion of the city are actually churches, eleven in all, that are each cut from one single block of scoria basalt rock. Each one in some way is said to represent humility and the spiritual life of the Christian faith.
Many of the patterns of the buildings and their names are also said to be representations of the spiritual life that Lalibela the man is said to have observed in Jerusalem during his youth. The names of the buildings have mostly Biblical names, and even the river of the town became known as the River Jordan.
But there was yet another event that was to happen at that time in world history that made the founding of the town known as Lalibela even more critical for the time. I will write about that in the next post.