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Lalibala Or Gabra Masqal - Ethiopian Saints - Coptic Wiki


Lalibala is one of the saintly kings of the Zagwe dynasty that ruled Ethiopia from 1137 to 1270. Since its contribution and dedication to the has no equal in the history of the country, it is rather curious that the clergy collaborated with a rebel, Yekunno Amlak (1270-1285), to replace it with a new dynasty. Tribal politics may have been a factor. The construction of the monumental rock-hewn churches of Lasta is ascribed to this dynasty, and specifically to Lalibala. In fact, the name of the capital city, Roha, and its surroundings where these churches are located has been changed to Lalibala.

Lalibala was born around 1150 to a princely Lasta family of Zan (or Jan or Zahn) Seyyum and his wife, whose name is not mentioned in the gadl of the saint. It is reported that when the child was born, bees encircled him, foretelling that he would become king and be escorted by the national army. The was not welcomed by his brother, Harboy, who was ruler of the country at that time. In fact, Harboy attempted to have Lalibala poisoned.

Even before Lalibala took power, the angel of God appeared to him in a vision and transported him to the seventh heaven, where the Lord was enthroned. There, the Lord said to him, “Open the ears of your mind and comprehend what I shall show you, in order that you may build my temple on earth where I shall dwell with people and where I shall be sanctified by the mouth of my people.” Having said this, the Lord described for him the architecture and specifications of the ten rock-hewn churches. Today modern scholars do not have a better explanation of the existence of these breathtakingly impressive Lalibala churches in the middle of a cultural desert. The architecture does not resemble any of the churches or other buildings in neighboring countries, which might be expected to have wielded cultural influence.

Apparently fearing the ruling monarch, Lalibala left the city and lived in the woods until the time was right for his return. In the wilderness he devoted himself to God in and fasting. His true devotion to God in his own way comes through clearly in his gadl. For example, among those who resented his eventual reign was one who gave this reason: “If this man reigned, he would exchange me for incense for use in the church.” His judgment was not totally wrong: there is a tradition that Lalibala indeed sold his own son when he had nothing to give to the poor. While in hiding, Lalibala married Masqal Kebra, who is also commemorated as a saint. His hagiographer claims that Lalibala had visited Egypt and the Holy Land before he ascended the throne. He received his other name, Gabra Masqal (Servant of the Cross), in a revelation while he was in the Holy Land. to these places is an aspiration of every religious Ethiopian. There are cases where hagiographers take the liberty of including pilgrimage stories in the acts of their saints, regardless of the actual facts.

According to his hagiographer, the end of Lalibala’s reign and life coincided with the end of the construction of the rock-hewn churches, for it was for this important mission of building lasting temples that the Lord raised him. Lalibala is commemorated on 12 Sane (Ba’unah). Although the month is the beginning of the rainy season, from all over the country flock to Lalibala in Sane every year to participate in the celebration.