Lalibela – Northwestern Churches

Sunday, January 04, 2015
Lalibela, Amhara, Ethiopia
These next 2 days are devoted to the rock hewn churches of Lalibela.

Lalibela is a town in northern Ethiopia that is famous for its 11 monolithic rock-cut churches. Lalibela is one of Ethiopia's holiest cities, second only to Aksum, and is a center of pilgrimage for much of the country. Unlike Aksum, the population of Lalibela is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. The layout and names of the major buildings in Lalibela are widely accepted, especially by the local clergy, to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem. This has led some experts to date the current form of its churches to the years following the capture of Jerusalem in 1187 by the Muslim soldier Saladin.

Lalibela is located in the Semien Wollo Zone of the Amhara ethnic division (or kilil) at roughly 2,500 meters above sea level.

The Northernwestern Group or Cluster:
The Western Group or Cluster:
  • Biete Giyorgis (Church of Saint George), said to be the most finely executed and best preserved church.
The Southeastern Group or Cluster:
Farther afield lie the monastery of Ashetan Maryam and Yimrehane Kristos church (possibly eleventh century, built in the Aksumite fashion but within a cave).

There is some controversy as to when some of the churches were constructed. David Buxton established the generally accepted chronology, noting that "two of them follow, with great fidelity of detail, the tradition represented by Debra Damo as modified at Yemrahana Kristos." Since the time spent to carve these structures from the living rock must have taken longer than the few decades of King Lalibela's reign, Buxton assumes that the work extended into the 14th century. However, David Phillipson, professor of African archeology at Cambridge University, has proposed that the churches of Merkorios, Gabriel-Rufael, and Danagel were initially carved out of the rock half a millennium earlier, as fortifications or other palace structures in the waning days of the Axumite Kingdom, and that Lalibela's name simply came to be associated with them after his death. On the other hand, local historian Getachew Mekonnen credits Masqal Kibra, Lalibela's queen, with having one of the rock-hewn churches (Abba Libanos) built as a memorial for her husband after his death.

Contrary to theories advocated by writers like Graham Hancock, according to Buxton the great rock-hewn churches of Lalibela were not built with the help of the Knights Templar; asserting abundant evidence exists to show that they were produced solely by medieval Ethiopian civilization. For example, while Buxton notes the existence of a tradition that "Abyssinians invoked the aid of foreigners" to construct these monolithic churches, and admits that "there are clearly signs of Coptic influence in some decorative details" (hardly surprising given the theological, ecclesiastical, and cultural links between the Ethiopian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox Churches), he is adamant about the native origins of these creations: "But the significant fact is remains that the rock-churches continue to follow the style of the local built-up prototypes, which themselves retain clear evidence of their basically Axumite origin."

The churches are also a significant engineering feat, given that they are all associated with water (which fills the wells next to many of the churches) exploiting an artesian geological system that brings the water up to the top of the mountain ridge on which the city rests. Thanks Mr Wikipedia.

Whatever and how they were made, these below ground churches are truly amazing feat of construction.

So leaving at 9 am it was first to the Northwestern cluster and its six churches. Full airport like security before entering. Note the US$50 entry fee!

The following is the route that we followed and more or less follows the recognised order with a few changes. I've used Lonely Planet web site for my reference. The number refers to Philip Briggs Ethiopia 6th edition map on page 332.

A service was going on as we waited before joining the throngs and entering the first church. I noticed how some of these churches have been covered by a roof structure built in 2008 by UNESCO to protect them from the elements and preserve them for future generations. It is hard to avoid when taking photographs of the outside. Was told that this was a temporary solution until something better could be designed. I hope so soon.

1 - First up was Bet Medhane Alem.

Resembling a massive Greek temple more than a traditional Ethiopian church, Bet Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World) is impressive for its size and majesty. Said to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world, it measures 33.5m by 23.5m and is over 11.5m high. Some scholars have suggested it may have been a copy in rock of the original St Mary of Zion church in Aksum / Axum. 

The building is surrounded by 34 large, rectangular columns (many are replicas of the originals). The three jointed at each corner are thought to represent the Holy Trinity. The interior consists of a barrel-vaulted nave and four aisles with 38 columns supporting the gabled roof. The three empty graves in one corner are said to have been prepared symbolically for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On Sundays, worshippers come hoping to be blessed or healed by the famous 7kg gold Lalibela Cross.

Shoes off and our "shoe man" Adisie gathered them up and took them to the exit door. What a service! He quickly worked out whose shoes were whose plus assisted those who needed assistance putting their shoes on. As I have said earlier, I was glad I had my Birkenstock Boston slip ons! The floor inside the churches are covered with old mainly red rugs that make the walk much smoother. These rugs were famous for being infected with fleas, but it seems they have eliminated them once and for all as I got no flea bites on this trip.

Once inside it is hard to appreciate the whole volume of the rock structure as one is fixed to the inside. One is also too close to the structure itself to realise or remember that it is carved out of a solid mass of rock. It is a truly extraordinary work of art.

No flash and I didn’t on purpose carry my monopod. It would have been a nuisance if I did with the crowd and narrowness at time plus wanting to take pictures of the ceiling. Just hope my hand held images are crisp enough and that the high ISO doesn’t make for nosy images.

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