Lalibela, in Ethiopia, should be high on anyone’s list of contenders for the title of most astonishing site in the history of Christian art and architecture. Imagine coming over a hill and seeing what looks like a low stone blockhouse sticking slightly out of the ground. As you get closer, you see that it has a kind of wide moat—and only then do you realize that what you are seeing at ground level is the roof of a huge tower church that extends some 40 feet below the surface.
The church was carved out of solid granite by armies of laborers working over many years using only hammers and chisels. The building retains the rich colors of the rock, which seem to transmute as the day progresses.
Lalibela is home to 11 such churches, including the largest monolithic (single stone) church in existence anywhere. Few Ethiopians doubt that angels played a role in this vast construction project.
Philip Jenkins is professor of history at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade and The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels.