These churches in Ethiopia were each carved out of a single block of stone.
The 11 churches of the region, which became known by Lalibela’s name, were intended to become a new capital for Christian pilgrimage and worship, or a “New Jerusalem.” Even today, these impressive monolithic buildings draw Orthodox pilgrims from all across the country for the holy days, some of them traveling on foot for months to reach Lalibela, which has been protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1978.
CBS’s Scott Pelley held an interview with Tsigie Selassie Mezgebu, the head priest of Lalibela at the church of St. George, who explained the pilgrimage that thousands take each year. He said:
“These are believers. Not just three days, even three months sometimes. When there was no air travel or buses, people used to travel from various parts of the country for months, to come here and celebrate with us.”
Little is known about the people who built the Lalibela churches, and a popular belief among the faithful of the region is that they had help from angels. The construction of these churches is believed to have been carried out with just hammers and chisels to carve doors, windows, floors, and walls out of solid rock.
Unfortunately, these impressive testaments to the ingenuity of the medieval Ethiopian people have fallen into disrepair after several centuries of neglect. While the churches continue to function, repairs and maintenance are strictly regulated, as the stone is considered holy by the Ethiopian Orthodox. All preservation work is considered and debated before commencing, and even then, any dust from the work is collected and saved by the priests.
In order to protect the sandstone structures from rain, which slowly deteriorates the stone, the communities have erected large roofs that rise above each church. Protection from the rain, however, has created more problems as the dry stone is threatening to crumble. While the threat is real, the sites are in no danger of imminent destruction and are expected to stand for another millennium, if cared for properly.