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Ethiopia's 'New Jerusalem' Major Draw for Christian Pilgrims


The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are among Ethiopia's crowning glories, recognized internationally as a unique and important site. Built in the early 1200s by King Lalibela, the churches continue to draw pilgrims from around the world and are a testament to the grandeur of the millennium that has just passed in Ethiopia. Cathy Majtenyi visited Lalibela and files this report for VOA.

Legend has it that before he became king, Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela fell into a deep sleep for three days after his half-brother tried to poison him.

While he was asleep, angels took Lalibela to heaven and showed him the magnificent churches he was to build. Lalibela then fled to Jerusalem where, another legend says, God showed him a vision of a new Jerusalem in the Ethiopian town of Roha, now called Lalibela.

Many experts contend that the 11 churches carved out of rock were constructed under the leadership of King Lalibela, who reigned from 1181 to 1221, Western time, during the Zagwe Dynasty.

Among the most famous churches is Bet Giorgis, or St. George Church. Visitors reach its entrance by walking along a narrow path surrounded by high rock walls.

Ethiopia's national saint, St. George, is said to have severely scolded King Lalibela for not having constructed a house for him, and hence the king promised St. George that his would be the most beautiful church. Monks still point out holes on a rock face near the church that were supposedly made by the hooves of St. George's horse.

Father Wodai Asafa is the priest at St. George's Church. He says, "This is a place where one meets God. This pleases man and God will be pleased too."

Near St. George Church, boys from around seven to 11 years old are being trained to be deacons, and perhaps eventually priests in the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Church.

Not far from St. George Church is a group of churches surrounded by a rock wall. Believers considered it the pathway to heaven. Another noteworthy church is Bet Medhane Alem, or House of the Redeemer of the World. The Lonely Planet guidebook describes it as the largest rock-hewn church on earth.

Father Asmero Elfasser, the priest in charge of Bet Medhane Alem, says, "It (the church's construction) is very sophisticated. It should be with the help of angels, not only by human capability. When I see this building, I am always surprised. I look at it every morning and every evening."

The United Nations' Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, has classified the 11 rock-hewn churches as a World Heritage Site.

Tourists and pilgrims continue to flock to Lalibela, considered to be one of Ethiopia's holiest cities.

Vivian Westbrook is a member of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. She and fellow church members came to Lalibela and other sites in Ethiopia to pay homage to their church's Ethiopian roots.

She says, "So it's really coming home, coming home to our spiritual birthplace, and I think it's just been really overwhelming and fascinating and really kind of emotional. It really has been."

As Ethiopia enters its new millennium, which began on September 12th, many Ethiopians look back on their history with pride and reverence, vowing to continue the great achievements of the past.

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