SARZENA MIKAEL ROCK HEWN CHURCH (THE CHURCH OF ST. MACHAEL)
It is 6th century, Axumite period rock hewn church from King Caleb’s time (485A.D.- 536A.D.). It is located just 25KM outside Lalibela and the last 8 KM is driven on a dry weather gravel road while the first 17KM is driven on the main Lalibela-Bilbala Road.
As this historic rock hewn church was seriously damaged on the Northern Side. King Hailesellasie had ordered renovation, which took place at the time and they saved the Heritage site from being abandoned so it continued to be actively used to serve as a church till today. The water sourcing from the hill side goes beneath the church and keep eroding it and there needs something to be done by professionals of Heritage restorers.
MAI MARIAM ROCK HEWN CHURCH (THE CHURCH OF ST. MARY)
According to the church’s scholars, history of the founding of this particular ancient monastery church takes us back to the historic reference mentioned by the church that is linked to King Caleb’s Expedition to Yemen.
During King Caleb’s period, there was an atheist lord in Yemen who rose against Christians and persecuting them and having heard this, King Caleb made a journey across the red sea being accompanied by his military then having been victorious, reinstated Christianity then made his journey back to his power capital in Ethiopia. When he returned he brought five big volumes of religious parchment books written in geez language and holy arks known as, Holy Ark of St. Mary, Holy Ark of St. Cyriacus, Holy Ark of St. Michael, Holy Ark of the Four Beasts and Holy Ark of St. George. Then for the purpose of spreading Christianity further south of Axum in the regions of Agaw and Lasta, he was determined to make expeditions through the rugged mountains of the region being led by a legendary pillar of light, which a sign that show him the right places as to where he needs to establish rock hewn churches at rocky hills that he finds in these regions.
As he reached near the peaks of Abune Yosef heights, he stopped around the rivers that flow down to West from Abune Yosef heights where the legend says that the pillar of light disappeared from his sight. When the pillar of light was out of their site then the king asked “where is the pillar of light that led us all the way to here?” The people named the river where they were at the time of the disappearance of the Pillar of Light as “Meri”, which means “Leader” in the local language so the river is still known by this name. Later the pillar of light reappeared and showed them the spot where they were about to found this particular monastery near Mt. Mera, which is 2800 meters above Sea Level where the king have built his palace until he had ordered his people for the carving of this particular rock hewn church known by the name “Mai Mariam” one of the holy arks he brought with him was housed in this rock hewn church. This particular rock hewn church is surrounded by forest of indigenous trees.
BILBALA KIRKOS ROCK HEWN CHURCH (THE CHURCH OF ST. CYRIACUSE)
It is located 30KM far from Lalibela on the Lalibela to Ayana Bugna Road. It is in the middle of the forest where there are indigenous trees where this historic rock hewn church is located.
It was found by King Caleb of the Axumite Empire period who ruled the dynasty between (485A.D. – 536A.D.) according to the Hagiography on the parchment in Geez language found at the church.
This rock hewn church has four pillars that have religious meaning and symbolism of the four evangelists. There are 7 windows that symbolize the seven heavens. It has also 3 sanctuaries that represent the Trinity.
There is an annual festival that takes place on October 15 (Ethiopian Date) to commemorate the date of the martyrdom of the kid St. Cyriacus and on this date the clergy men serve the holy honey to pilgrims collected from the bees that used a window as a beehive from one of the windows of the church and the honey has healing power according to the clergy men that serve in this monastery church and the pilgrims. The forest that is found around the church is a reason as to why these bees have lived harmoniously.
BILBALA GHIORGIS ROCK HEWN CHURCHES (THE CHURCH OF ST. GEORGE)
It is located 30KM North of Lalibela on the road from Lalibela to Sekota. To be exact, it is located on the hill top, east of Bilbala town, which is one of the small towns found in Lasta Province.
This monastery church is found by King Caleb (485A.D. – 536A.D.) of the Axumite Empire Period King.
It is Semi- Monolithic rock hewn church with three entrance doors as in any other Ethiopian Orthodox Churches and it has 4 pillars internally.
In addition, it is in the underground of the Eastern Wall of the church is where the Sanctuary of Kidane Mihret (The Covenant of Mercy) is located. At one of the windows, there are honey bees that still prevail since the time of the establishment of the monastery at the time of King Caleb. And the honey bees from the windows of the church have miraculously lived there and the honey from them has healing power and pilgrims take some portions of honey as it has healing power. Among treasures of this particular church, there are processional crosses made of bronze and many parchments.
The annual festival takes place on April 23 (Ethiopian Date) in commemoration of St. George’s Martyrdom.
ARBATU ENSESA ROCK HEWN CHURCH (THE CHURCH OF THE FOUR BEASTS OR THE FOUR EVANGELISTS)
Arbatu Ensesa (The Four Beasts or the four evangelists) rock hewn church is located 37KM far from Lalibela on the road to Yimrehane-Kristos.
At the spot where this monastery is located, there are different indigenous trees and other plants to see and to mention some among the trees to see are the following, Fig, Cactus, Cordia and Olive are the types of big trees to see around the monastery church.
It is carved out of Volcanic Red Tuff Rock during the period of King Caleb (485A.D. – 536A.D.).
This rock hewn church has 5 windows and it also has 4 pillars internally that symbolize the evangelists in whose name the monastery is named after. On the Southern side of the church there are two entrance & exist doors for men and women.
There are treasures that have prevailed all these hundreds of years that have been housed in this monastery. Parchments that are found in this monastery and some of these include, The Miracles of St. Mary, A parchment for the religious prayer service in the name of the Four Evangelists, News of the Trinity and so on. The wooden doors of the rock hewn church are ones that still exist from the time.
There is annual festival that takes place at this rock hewn church on November 8 (Ethiopian Date).
This rock hewn church is under serious threat because of erosion and water sources from the rocky background.
TIKURZA KIDANE-MIHRET ROCK HEWN CHURCH (THE CHURCH OF THE COVENANT OF MERCY)
The ancient ruined rock hewn church had been found by the 6th century Axumite King, King Caleb. It is located 35km far from Lalibela on the way to Yimrehane Kristos Monastery, which is accessed only 10 minutes walk from the road, south of Arbatu Ensesa Rock hewn church of the same period. This particular ruined rock hewn church is seriously damaged and eroded by water and wind erosion filled with soil as a result of all sorts of erosions such as rain water, wind and weathering, which led the ruining of this ancient Heritage site. A new church was built above ground next to the ruined church. All the ancient treasures, which were in the ancient ruined church are now housed in the newly built church.
YIMREHANE-KRISTOS, THE MARVELOUS BUILT-UP CAVE CHURCH BUILT BY THE PRIEST-KING YIMREHANE KRISTOS AFTER THE END OF THE ANCIENT AXUMITE CIVILISATION AND DURING THE ERA OF THE ZAGWE DYNASTY.
This marvelous church is found North East of Lalibela town at a distance of 42km total by heading 30km North to Bilbala town then turn and head 12km towards the ridge of Mt. Abune Yosef. One important thing to note, for people who love to hike, trek or take mule ride to this ancient heritage site, there is walking path estimated to be 21km long and it is steep climb up and down on the chains of mountains that stretch all the way to Mt. Abune Yosef, which take you a total time of 12 to 13 hours round trip. As you approach the monastery, you see the astonishing forest, which is from the time of King Yimrehane Kristos. Being impressed by the forest itself, as you approach the church, you find yourself under a huge natural cave known by the name Wegre-Siheen. The size of the main church building is 50 meters in its length and it is 38.75 Meters in its Width. The height of the church building at the western door side is 7.70 meters. According to church scholars of the monastery, the underground that begin behind the Bethlehem at the eastern end of the cave & according to the belief of the church scholars, the tunnel goes as far as Mount Abune Yosef. The monastery was found during the period of King Yimrehane Kristos between 1077A.D. – 1117A.D. (Ethiopian Calendar).
The way that this particular marvelous church is built impresses every single visitor as it is made in the way of ancient Axumite wood and stone construction technique, which led historians to put a conclusion by putting it this way in words “Yimrehane Kristos is a bridge between Axumite and Zagwe Civilizations”. Its internal ceilings are wood carvings and painting on the wooden ceiling.
The church building has a total of 26 windows, at the Northern Wall there are 8 windows, there are 7 windows at the southern wall, there are 5 windows at the western wall and at the eastern wall there are 6 windows. Among the 26 windows, 4 are blind windows while the rest 22 windows are functional ones.
There are three access doors to the sanctuary or in other terms “the holy of holy” according to the theological term of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church but sanctuary is accessed only by clergy men. One of the three wooden doors of the sanctuary were sent as a gift from the Egyptian King to Priest King Yimrehane Kristos according to the Hagiography of Priest-King Yimrehane Kristos written in Geez language on this particular ancient book made from Goat Skin Pages that existed all those centuries without deterioration.
The church building is built using wood and stone interlacing construction technique in which the stones used are basalt rubble stones layered on one another. Mud mixed with straw, most probably teff straw is used between the basalt rubbles, which is one of the unique features ever seen on this particular Zagwe Dynasty Period architecture. This architectural feature has some similarities with the ancient Axumite wood and stone construction technique that was previously widely seen in the period of the Ancient Axumite Empire. On top of those layers of stones, which is a typical white plastering, traditionally known as marble plaster are put all around the walls between the wooden layers that gave typical distinct feature to the general architectural grace of the church building at this monastery.
At the four corners of the upper floor, there are two rooms on the eastern end of the upper floor and two rooms at the western end of the upper floor which makes it an upper floor with four rooms.
The stone layers of the floor of the internal part of the church are very smooth as hundreds of thousands or more pilgrims who had walked on their barefoot for hundred of years since the founding of the monastery and it shows us how selected river stones are used to give durability for the floor of the church. The ceiling is wooden and adorned with different designs of crosses and different ornaments such as hanging pearls on the central ceiling.
The pillars of the church are made from carefully carved precious stones and are capable of supporting the huge weight supported for as long as the church building exists. There is no mention of type of the plastering technique or as to the origin of the so called “Marble Plasters”.
There are ancient paintings that have very well been preserved on the internal walls, arches and ceiling of the church for hundreds of years.
The Priest-King Yimrehane Kristos and his assistant Bine Kristos’ tombs are found just next to the main church building. There are mummified bodies of pilgrims who have come even from beyond the territories of the Ethiopian Empire of the time. Some pilgrims originated from Middle East region Christian inhabited areas to mention and the total number of the pilgrims mummified is believed to reach 5740Pilgrims according to the Monastery’s scholars.
The annual festival of the commemoration of Priest-King Yimrehane Kristos takes place on October 19 (Ethiopian Date). And at the same church there is another annual festival on December 15 (E.C.) and July 19 (Ethiopian Date) in commemoration of St. Cyriacus and his mother St. Juliette.