Without a doubt, the star of the ancient sites of Ethiopia is Lalibela, with its rock-hewn churches that date back to the 12th and 13th century.
Named after the king who gave the decree to have them built and set high in the Lasta mountains, the creation of the churches are shrouded in mystery. Some have estimated it would have taken 40,000 workers to carve these amazing structures from stone. Local legends have it that angels came in the night to work as the people slept.
The churches are big, some more than 30 feet high, and because they are carved from the rock at ground level and down, all 11 churches are all surrounded by trenches and courtyards that were once solid red rock, creating a cavity with a church at its center.
As I walked around the churches through the narrow alleyways or gully that connect the structures, taking photos of monks and pilgrims, a sense of awe overcame me. The time, effort and devotion to create such splendid buildings is overwhelming. I can't even carve the frosting on a cake, so the skill and dedication to create these churches is beyond my comprehension.
Part of the appeal of these amazing structures is the fact they are still in use today. They are not a relic from the past that is taken from the closet and paraded around to show camera-toting tourists, but are active Christian shrines that have inspired pilgrims for 800 years. If you quiet yourself and listen close enough to the red pillars, carved windows and doorways, and as the wind blows through the narrow passages, you can hear the whispers and prayers of saints and angels. The place is alive, with monks and worshipers.
If it were not lost in the mountains of Ethiopia, it would be considered one of the major wonders of the world. It is one of the most profound Christian creations I have ever experienced.
One church in particular captured my attention deep enough that I returned several times to study and admire it. As I sat on the edge of the ledge that drops into the courtyard of St. George sketching the ancient church in my journal, monks would move in and out of the old structure in daily prayer. Carved into the shape of a Greek cross, the church is a masterpiece of art, labor, skill and devotion.
I took a moment of silence before leaving on my last visit and walked back to my hotel room for dinner. Later that night, as the wind blew steadily across the mountainside I set a chair outside in the dark empty space of my hotel compound. For an hour I sat there looking up at the clear nighttime sky, staring at stars often not visible because of city lights and I wondered where the carving angels might be that night.