bunnacafeGebre Mesqel Lalibela was a ruler of Ethiopia in the 1200s, part of the long-standing Zagwe Dynasty. He spent much of his childhood in Crusader-occupied Jerusalem, and when it was reconquered by the Muslims in 1187, he drew inspiration to build a replica of the city in the highlands of Ethiopia, and use it as his capital and the spiritual center of the country. In a feat of engineering unfathomable for its time, he oversaw the cutting of eleven large churches out of the soft limestone boulders of the area – all of them intricately and meticulously carved into perfect angles and proportions. The Lalibela complex likely took decades to finish, but became a powerful center of the Zagwe domain and a site of wonder for later European visitors, with one Portuguese ambassador in the 1500s writing: “I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more … I swear by God, in Whose power I am, that all I have written is the truth.” Two of the twelve churches stand out in particular. Medhane Alem, at over 100 feet in length and 33 feet in height, is considered to be the largest monolithic church in the world. The most recognizable and well-preserved is St Giorgis, which is carved out as a cross and sits alone at the far end of the complex. Today they are a popular tourist destination, and the second holiest site in the country behind the ancient city of Aksum.
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