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Beautiful Ethiopian church made from carved rock

By Catholic Online
January 19th, 2011
Catholic Online (

The town of Lalibela in Ethiopia is completely isolated from the modern world, without motor vehicles, gas stations or paved streets. The town goes about its business as it has for hundreds of years. Spiritual life is very important there, with eleven monolithic - or rock-hewn churches making its home there. Bet Giorgis, or the Church of St. George, marked the culmination of Lalibela's plans to build a New Jerusalem.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Bet Giorgis, like the other ten churches there, are carved entirely out of a single block of granite with its roof at ground level.

There are two versions of the church's history. One says that the church was built after Lalibela's death, around 1220 by his widow as a memorial to the "saint-king." The other story claims that it was a promise that king Lalibela had made to St. George, who had been upset, after Lalibela had constructed ten of the rock-hewn churches, that there was no church dedicated to him.

In either case, Bet Giorgis was built as the most perfect of the churches, and although plain on the inside, it is known as the most beautiful of the eleven churches, with its perfect dimensions and geometrical precision.

The church is cut 40 feet down, its roof forming the shape of a Greek cross. On the inside, there is a curtain that shields the Holy of Holies, in front of which usually stands a priest displaying books and paintings to visitors. In the shadows of one of the arms of the cruciform-shaped church is a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. Although an explorer was once allowed to open it, he found it empty, and no one was able to tell him what happened to its contents.

Religious life is especially rich in Lalibela. One tenth of its population is devoted to priesthood. Regular processions, extensive fasts, and crowds of singing and dancing priests are also part of the package. This atmosphere, combined with the religious architecture and simplicity of the town's way of life, gives the city of Lalibela "a distinctively timeless, almost biblical atmosphere."

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