Lalibela: the Ethiopian Jerusalem

By: Jacob Lumbroso

In the 1980 Ethiopia was largely known in the international press for two reasons. The first was the tragic famine that occurred in 1984-1985. The second, was the first exodus of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1984.

Ethiopia is known most significantly however, for its historic place in early Christianity. The town of Lalibela is among Ethiopia's holy cities and is renown for a series of rock-hewn churches. As a sacred site, Lalibela is second only to the city of Askum. The most famous of these churches is Bete Giryorgis.

The overwhelming majority of the population are members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and of Amhara ethnicity. Lalibela's layout reflects the buildings of Jerusalem. This is partly attributable to Gebre Mesqel Lalibela's residence in Jerusalem during his youth. Gebre eventually rose to rule Ethiopia in the late 12th and 13th centuries CE.

The fall of Jerusalem to Muslims in 1187, is the second reason that Lalibela reflects patterns of Jerusalem. Biblical names are found throughout the region.

The first European to see these churches was the Portuguese explorer P? da Covilh?followed by the explorer Franscisco Alvares in the 1520s. Roughly three hundred years transpired until Gerhard Rohlfs, another European explorer visited Lalibela somewhere between 1865 and 1870.

Lalibela is home to 12 rock-hewn churches. They include Bete Medhane Alem, home to the Lalibela Cross, Bete Maryam, Bete Golgotha (known for its arts and said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela), the Selassie Chapel, the Tomb of Adam, Bete Giyorgis, arguably the best preserved church, Bete Amanuel, Bete Merkorios, Bete Abba Libanos and Bete Gabriel-Rufael.

The Ethiopian connections with Jerusalem and Semitic culture are further highlighted when remembering that Semitic languages, of which Amharic is one, represent a family of languages spoken by more than 300 million people across the Middle East, North Africa, and the horn of Africa. After Arabic, Amharic is the second most spoken Semitic language in the world.

Amharic is spoken by the Amhara, an ethnic group in the central highlands of Ethiopia. The Amhara people comprise approximately 30 percent of the population, with about 27 million speakers. An additional 7-15 million people speak it as a second language. It has been the working language of government institutions, the military, and of the Ethiopic Orthodox church.

In addition to Ethiopia, Amharic is also the language of some 2.7 million emigrants. The largest population of ?gr?live in Egypt, Israel, and Sweden.

Increasing numbers of Ethiopians and Eritreans have also emigrated to the United States. The Amharic language is also spoken in Eritrea by some Eritreans as a vestige of past years when Eritrea was part of the Ethiopia.

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