The story goes: almost 900 years ago in Ethiopia there lived a visionary king named Lalibela.
Lalibela traveled far and wide, including an extended pilgrimage he took to Jerusalem, after which he brought back home to Ethiopia all he'd seen and learned.
When Muslims conquered Jerusalem in the late 12th century and it became too dangerous for devout Ethiopian Christians to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem itself, Lalibela fashioned a work-around: to build a New Jerusalem in his home country.
But this New Jerusalem was no ordinary holy place.
The foundation of Lalibela's vision was to build churches in the ground. Today, each of his eleven rock-hewn churches stands carved out top-down from a single piece of solid rock — all so that foreign invaders would not see them above ground from afar.
Construction was a remarkable feat of execution. Once the rough shape of the structure was carved away from the rock, work would then begin on carving the church from the outside in.
Remember: all of this engineering took place 900 years ago without the aid of today's machinery and sophisticated measurement tools. No wonder local legend says that Lalibela claims to have had a vision of the churches — including detailed instruction as to how they ought to be built — directly from God.
Open up the panorama below to see the inside of our favorite Lalibela rock-hewn church, Biete Maryam (House of Mary). Be sure to use the up arrow and check out the engraved arches and ceilings covered in original frescoes.
What makes these churches even more remarkable: they have been used continually, filling with hundreds of people chanting and praying every Sunday for almost 900 years.
Ethiopia is a land of living history where you can get a glimpse of the past through present-day society and culture. We look forward to sharing much more on this fascinating country very soon.
360-Degree Panorama: Biete Maryam, a Lalibela Rock-Hewn Church in Ethiopia