I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more ... swear I by God, in Whose power I am, that is written is the truth and there is much more than what I have written, and I have left it that they may not tax me with its falsehood. Francisco Alvarez (early 16th century Portuguese writer)
The legend of Lalibela Rock-Hewn churches of Ethiopia. Ever since the first European to describe the rock churches of Lalibela, Francisco Alvarez, came to this holy city between 1521 and 1525, travelers have tried to put into words their experiences. Praising it as a “New Jerusalem”, a “New Golgotha”, the “Christian Citadel in the Mountains of Wondrous Ethiopia”. The inhabitants of the monastic township of Roha-Lalibela in Lasta, province of Wollo, dwelling in two storeyed circular huts with dry stonewalls, are unable to believe that the rock churches are entirely made by man. They ascribe their creation to one of the last kings of the Zagwe dynasty, Lalibela, who reigned about 1200 A.D.
The Zagwe dynasty had come to power in the eleventh century, one hundred years after Queen Judith; a ferocious woman warrior had led her tribes up from the Semien Mountains to destroy Axum, the capital of the ancient Ethiopian empire in the north.
All three section of the 1,700-year old Axum obelisk has arrived back in Ethiopia, 68 years after it was looted by Italian fascists. Many Ethiopians see the obelisk as an important national symbol – its return has been subject to great national anticipation and excitement. Seized back in 1937 by Italian troops, it was taken to Rome where it remained, despite a 1947 UN agreement to return it to Ethiopia. It was eventually dismantled into three pieces in 2004 in preparation for its journey home, an operation which is costing Italy an estimated 6 million euros (£4.1 million). The monument is due to be re-erected after the rainy season.
The charming Ethiopian folklore pictures telling the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which are sold in Addis Ababa, give a popular version of how not only the dynasty of ancient Axum (and present day Ethiopia) descended from King Solomon, but also the medieval Zagwe dynasty. The Queen of Sheba gave birth to Menelik, who became the first King of Ethiopia. But the handmaid of the Queen, too, gave birth to a son whose father was King Solomon, and her son was the ancestor of the Zagwe dynasty. The Zagwe kings ruled until the thirteenth century, when a famous priest, Tekla Haymanot, persuaded them to abdicate in favour of a descendant of the old Axumite Solomonic dynasty. However, according to legend before the throne of Ethiopia was restored to its rightful rulers, upon command of God and with the help of angels, Lalibela’s pious zeal converted the royal residence of the Zagwe in the town of Roha in to a prayer of stone.
The Ethiopian Church later canonized him and changed the name of Roha to Lalibela. Roha, the centre of worldly might, became Lalibela the holy city; pilgrims to Lalibela shared the same blessings as pilgrims to Jerusalem, while the focus of political power drifted to the south, to the region of Shoa. Legends flower in Lalibela, and it is also according to legend that Lalibela grew up in Roha, where his brother was king. It is said that bees prophesied his future greatness, social advance and coming riches. The king, made jealous by these prophecies about his brother tried to poison him, but the poison merely cast Lalibela into a death like sleep for three days. During these three days an angel carried his soul to heaven to show him the churches which he was to build. Returned once more to earth he withdrew into the wilderness then took a wife upon God’s command with the name of Maskal Kebra (Exalted Cross) and flew with an angel to Jerusalem. Christ himself ordered the king to abdicate in favour of Lalibela. Anointed king under the throne name Gare Maskal (Servant of the Cross) Lalibela, living himself an even more severe monastic life than before, carried out the construction of the churches. Angels worked side by side with the stone masons, and within twenty four years the entire work was completed.
Lalibela is a town in northern Ethiopia. Lalibela is one of Ethiopia's holiest cities, second only to Aksum, and is a center of pilgrimage for much of the country. Unlike Aksum, the population of Lalibela is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. Lalibela was intended to be a New Jerusalem in response to the capture of Jerusalem by Muslims, and many of its historic buildings take their name and layout from buildings in Jerusalem.
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