Built by Angels
Angels on Earth|Jan/Feb 2021
My mother called to ask if I knew the story of the 11 churches carved from single stones in Ethiopia
MEG BELVISO
SUNDAY NIGHT, I was thinking about making dinner when the phone rang.

“Turn on CBS,” a voice said.

“What?” Click. The caller hung up. No, it wasn’t code or a message from heaven. It was just my mom. She sometimes made calls like that when she was watching something on live TV that she didn’t want me to miss but had no time to explain because she didn’t want to miss a minute of it herself. I turned on CBS.

Once I did, I understood the urgency. How was it possible that I never heard of the miracle being discussed on this news program? A medieval wonder that is known as Lalibela.

Lalibela is a small town in the highlands of northern Ethiopia, a country that’s been Christian since 330 A.D., making it the oldest Christian country in the world. It is also home to a truly awe-inspiring mystery: a series of 11 churches like no other, all built without bricks, mortar, lumber or concrete. Each is carved from a single stone.

The churches are not so much built as dug into the landscape on either side of a small stream called the Jordan. They are carved into a rocky massif—that is, a compact group of small mountains—about 8,250 feet above sea level. The massif was created by ancient eruptions and is primarily composed of two kinds of volcanic basalt. The volcanic rock was turned red by iron deposits. Gases trapped inside made it light and good for carving. First the perimeter of the church was carved out, creating a giant solid block. The churches were then carved from the top down, working into the porous rock.

Historians date the building of the churches to the early thirteenth century. But who made them? There is no official record of how the churches came to be. No newsreels or photos, needless to say. There are a few theories. Some people believe that the churches were created by the Christian crusaders known as the Knights Templar, who were very powerful at that time, but there is no evidence of their involvement though much of their deeds have been documented.

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