In the northern Ethiopian town of Lalibela one can find a number of churches that have been hewn out of the solid rock of the natural landscape. These chthonic churches were carved into their shape in the 12th century – though some theories suggest the initial work began several centuries earlier – at the behest of of the Emperor of Ethiopia, Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, and their construction is said to mimic the layout of Jerusalem and the Holy Land in order to create a ‘New Jerusalem’.
The churches are also said to take many features of Solomon’s Temple, including a ‘Holy of Holies’ where a replica of the Ark of the Covenant is kept. This Judaic connection is found across many aspects of Ethiopian culture, from a rejection of pork as a food and similarities between Ethiopian and Judaic words, through to a strong belief that the Ark of the Covenant is housed in a church in the city of Axum.
Some say this Judaic ‘heritage’ arose directly from the construction of Lalibela as a ‘New Jerusalem’ in the 12th century, while others claim the influence is explained by various ‘hidden histories’ of Ethiopia, ranging from the involvement of the Knights Templar through to the hiding of the actual Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia centuries before the destruction of Jerusalem.
For a cracking read that explores some of these themes, see Graham Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal (Amazon US and Amazon UK):
Hancock was in Ethiopia in 1983, having been hired by the Ethiopian government to write and produce a coffee-table book extolling that country. He was greatly surprised when told that Ethiopia’s Falasha Jews did not exist, and that many people could land in jail, or worse, if he went around photographing such nonexistents. Even so, off he went to Axum, deep in the desert, to see the temples and statuary of the Black Jews of Ethiopia. What he found was a sect that claimed to have the original Ark of the Covenant.
For a tour of some of these amazing, mysterious churches, see the video below, or visit the Zamani Project website which offers more videos and interactive 3D models: