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LALIBELA, Ethiopia (AFP) — The ancient mystery shrouding Lalibela, Ethiopia's revered medieval rock-hewn churches, could be lifted by a group of French researchers given the go-ahead for the first comprehensive study of this world heritage site legend says was "built by angels".
The team will have full access to the network of 10 Orthodox chapels chiseled out of volcanic rock -- some standing 15 metres (42 feet) high -- in the mountainous heart of Ethiopia.
Local lore holds they were built in less than 25 years by their namesake, the 13th-century King Lalibela, with the help of angels after God ordered him to erect a "New Jerusalem".
The monolithic structures are located 500 kilometres (300 miles) north of the capital Addis Ababa. Long a holy pilgrimage site in a land proud of its Christian Orthodox heritage, they are also a travel draw in a poverty-stricken country hoping to boost tourism.
The multidisciplinary team of historians, archaeologists, topographers and a specialist in liturgy will spend several weeks probing the subterranean complex to try to identify its origins.
Historian Marie Laure Derat, with the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies (CFEE), said "there are several theories". In one, "an Egyptian patriarch was believed to be the source of these structures, another says the 13th-century King Lalibela built the site from scratch."
"During the day the king would work with Ethiopian artisans and at night he would 'be helped by angels'. Some even cite a key role by the Knights Templar," she said, referring to one of the key Western Christian military orders of the Middle Ages.
Though earlier studies have been carried out, they were generally by lone researchers with restricted access who studied mainly church interiors .
Derat said the heretofore reluctant Orthodox church gave the French team carte blanche to probe "the entire site, not just the churches, to understand how the periods overlap and to read history in this open book that is Lalibela".
Funded by the French government and Ethiopian Airlines, the team is already certain the chapels were not built in one go.
Research chief Francois Xavier Fauvelle said three distinct periods have been identified in the maze of deep tunnels, passageways and chapels, some of which resemble ancient Greek temples.
"There was originally a basalt dome under which we found evidence of cave dwellers. Then there was the construction of a fortress with trenches, a perimetre wall and underground tunnels," he said pointing to rocks he said where once part of the defence wall.
"The third period was established thanks to an enormous mound of earth about 20 metres high that came from the excavation of the church of Gabriel Ruphael," he said, referring to the chapel some believe was once King Lalibela's residence.
"The Ruphael Gabriel church was probably part of the fortress and was turned into a church: the facade was extended, windows opened and a chapel dug out," said Fauvelle.
UNESCO added Lalibela to its world heritage list in 1978, a boon for tourism efforts in this country of 85 million where poverty is rampant and agriculture accounts for nearly half the economy. Visitors can already join organized tours of the site.
But the bid to shed light on its origins has not shaken the Orthodox clergy and faithful here, who contend that Lalibela arose with divine intervention.
"It is God through his angels who made these churches," said Alebachew Reta, spokesman for the Lalibela clergy who insisted "the 10 churches were created in just 24 years."
"You can observe that even one would be difficult to build in that space of time. So for us it is God's work," said Reta. "For the one who created mankind, building these churches was not difficult."