Lalibela: Eighth Wonder of the World

Lalibela - Bete Giorgis

Eastwards, dust, wind, and the baking heat of the merciless midday sun create an environment where only the strong and cunning survive.Even if the fame of the Seven Wonders of the World has been outworn and the word "wonder" itself has been misused too often, the visitor will rediscover its true meaning, when faced with the rock churches of Lalibela.

Ever since the first European to describe Lalibela, Francisco Alvarez, came to this holy city between 1521 and 1525, travelers have tried to put into words their experience, prais­ing it as a "New Jerusalem", a "New Golgotha", the "Christian Citadel in the Mountains of Wondrous Ethiopia".

The Zagwe dynasty had come to power in the eleventh cen­tury, one hundred years after Queen Judith, a ferocious woman warrior, had tribes up from the Semyen moun­tains to destroy Axum, the capital of the ancient Ethiopian empire in the north.

The charming Ethiopian folklore pictures telling the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which are sold in Ad­dis Ababa, give a popular version of how not only the dynasty of ancient Axum (and present-day Ethiopia) descended from King Solomon,- but also the medieval Zagwe dynasty. The Queen of Sheba gave birth to Menelik, who became the first king of Ethiopia. But the handmaid of the Queen, too, gave birth to a son whose father was King Solomon, and her son was the ancestor of the Zagwe dynasty. The folklore paintings in­clude a lovely little picture of the two women sitting side by side, their babies on their laps, the Queen of Sheba in her coral. Apparel, her handmaid in Tigray costume, busy spinning.

The Zagwe kings ruled until the thirteenth century. When a famous priest, Tekla Haymanot, Persuaded them to abdicate in favor of a descendant of the old Axumite Solomonic dynasty.

However - according to legend - before the throne of Ethiopia was restored to its rightful rulers, upon command of God and with the help of angels. Lalibela's pious zeal con­verted the royal residence of the Zagwe in the town of Roha in­to a prayer of stone.

The Ethiopian Church later canonized him and changed the name of Roha to Lalibela. Roha, the centre of worldly might, became Lalibela the holy city; pilgrims to Lalibela shared the same blessings as pilgrims to Jerusalem while the focus of political power drifted to the south to the region of Shoa. Legends flower in Lalibela and it is also according to legend that Lalibela grew up in Roha, where his brother was king.  It is said that bees prophesied his future greatness, and Ethiopian folklore still has it that bees in a dream foretell greatness, social advance and coming riches. The king, made jealous by these prophecies about his brother, tried to poison him, but the poison merely cast Lalibela into a death-like sleep for three days. During these three days an angel carried his soul to heaven to show him the churches which he was to build Returned once more to earth he withdrew into the wilderness, then took a wife upon God's command with ,the name of Maskal Kebra (Exalted Cross) and flew with an angel to Jerusalem. Christ himself ordered the king to abdicate in favour of Lalibela. Anointed king under the throne name Gabre-Maskal (Servant of the Cross) Lalibela, living himself an even more severe monastic life than before, carried out the construction of the churches. Angels worked side by side with the stone-masons, any within twenty-four years the entire work was completed.

Coming to Lalibela you will find an atmosphere of mystery. Approaching the village in a four wheel drive from the airport you may just catch a glimpse of a group of churches.

Walking through the village you will see the quiet even austere, mountainous landscape of the region of Lasta, where the peasants labor to cultivate their patches of stony fields with the traditional hook plough. Their little huts hardly seem to offer sufficient shelter against the cold nights of this altitude. Strolling along across a gently undulating meadow, you will suddenly discover in a pit below you a mighty rock ­carefully chiseled and shaped - the first rock church! None of these monuments of Christian faith presents itself to the visitor on top of a mountain as a glorious symbol of Christ's victory, to be sunroom far away by the masses of pilgrims on their road to the "Holy City"; they rather hide themselves in the rock, surrounded by their deep trenches, only to be discovered by the visitor when standing very close on top of the rock and looking' downwards.

These, monuments of faith - were they then intended to be monuments of a secluded life dedicated to prayer and con­templation without regard for the riches of This World? In Lalibela itself you will find two main groups of churches, one on each side of the river Jordan, and one other church set apart from the rest. The town of Roha-Lalibela lies between the first and the second group of churches. It is situated on the higher part of a mountain-terrace on a vast plateau of rock. At Timkat (Ethiopian Epiphany, ca. January 19) a vivid ritual unfolds before the spectator: here the dances of the priests take place after the annual repetition of mass baptism in the river Jordan. There are twelve churches and chapels, including various shrines. Four churches are monolithic in the strict sense; the remainders are excavated churches in different degrees of separa­tion from the rock. The walls of the trenches and courtyards contain cavities and chambers sometimes filled with the mum­mies of pious monks and pilgrims. For the visitor who walks through the labyrinthine trenches and courtyards discovering at each turn new and surprising features, a few remarks about the architecture and history of the rock churches may be helpful. There are three basic types of rock churches in Ethiopia:

  1. Built-up cave churches, which are ordinary structures inside a natural cave (Makina Medhane Alem and Yemrehanna Krestos near Lalibela are examples of this style).
  2. Rock-hewn cave churches which are cut inwards from a more or less vertical cliff face, sometimes using and widening an existing natural cave (Abba Libanos in Lalibela).
  3. Rock-hewn monolithic churches which imitate a built­-up structure but are cut in one piece from the rock and separated from it all round by a trench. Most churches of this type are found in or near Lalibela (Bet Medhane Alem, Bet Maryam, Bet Giorgis, and others). Nowhere else in the world are constructions of this particular kind found.

Thus, the "construction" of a monolithic rock church was in fact an excavation. The actual method and order in which the work was carried out are thought to be fairly accurately surmised.

The workers probably cut free an oblong block of stone by sinking a rectangular trench in the tuff. From this monolith the stone masons chiseled out the church, shaping the exterior; and the interior, retaining stone for the columns, pilasters, beams and arches. The roof (e.g.  Bet Giorgis, Bet Maryam) was probably decorated by the senior masons while they were waiting for the less skilled craftsmen to excavate the walls. At each level of excavate the finishing sculptural work may have followed directly on from the rougher excavation. To ac­complish the work inside, entry was gained through the up­permost row of windows which are usually open and only rare­ly provided with fillings. The level of the proposed floor was reached first of all on the western side of the church in the area of the main entrance. The execution of such a great 'project poses a number of logistic problems which might also be pondered when admiring the finished work. For example, where was the excavated stone and earth carried to? How many thousands of human carriers must have· been employed? How were the stones carried away? In bags lifted upwards by ropes) was there slave labour as in ancient Egypt? How was an adequate food supply maintained and where did the masses of workers and skilled craftsmen live? And finally, what did the town of Roha look like at the period of the creation of the churches? Answers to all these questions can be hazarded but a great amount of archeological research will be necessary before really accurate theories can be formulated.

There are, however, some fairly obvious technical details to prove the high standard of technical knowledge the architects of Lalibela must have had: the churches in a group are set on several levels, in order to carry off the heavy summer rains. The trenches serve also as a drainage system to the river Jordan. With churches whose placing conforms to the slope of the ter­rain, the ridge of the roof, gutter edges, the base of the plinth, are slanted in line with it.

Whoever has experienced the "rainy season" in Ethiopia will appreciate the great skill shown by these early builders. The rains are in fact so heavy that Lalibela is inaccessible then; landing at the airport as well as an approach by Land-Rover from the main road are impossible.

You may wonder about the period of construction and about the inspiration behind this unique concept. Authorities claim that the rock churches in Ethiopia have two roots:

  1. the Axumite architecture with its palaces of wood and stone construction and with its monolithic stelae, and
  2. the early Christian basilica.

The influence of the typical Axumite wood and stone construc­tion appears to be predominant. Originally this consisted of stone-and-clay masonry utilizing small stones and rubble, so that the walls had to be strengthened at frequent intervals with long squared timbers (the so-called "sandwich style"); these were then held in place by short round cross-pieces the ends of which became visible as rows of protruding and smoothly rounded "monkey heads". In the monolithic rock churches this type of architecture had no function but was sometimes imitated. Bet Emanuel with its horizontal projec­tions and indentations is an excellent example. It should be remembered, however, that the famous monolithic stelae of Axum, imitating the traditional monkey-head structure of Ax­umite buildings, were already in existence at the time of Lalibela's construction and show that the technique of creating rock-hewn monuments is of much earlier date.

The foreign influences, apparent in Lalibela, i.e., the Persian ogee-arch, may already have been absorbed into the pre­-Christian and early Christian Axumite culture.

The most important foreign model for the Ethiopian rock churches, which was not, however, strictly adhered to, was the basilica, which originated in Greece and was an assembly hall' with a flat ceiling, a nave and two or more aisles. In order to let more daylight into the centre part the ceiling of the nave was raised to allow space for rows of windows above the lower side' aisles. Since the fourth century it was regarded in the Christian world as the correct shape for a church building. The models of the first Ethiopian churches very likely all date from before the time when bell towers were introduced in the east and west Mediterranean.

An important aspect of the basilica concept was that the church should be orientated with the holy of holies towards the east, the narthex (main entrance hall inside the building) being in the west. It is characteristic of Ethiopian churches that there should be three external doors -not less, not more-­and that there are usually three openings to the holy of holies. You may be permitted to enter the church; permission to enter the holy of holies; however, is traditionally only granted to the priests serving mass. The most important piece of fur­niture in the Ethiopian church is the tabot on the altar. The tabotis a slab of stone or wood, currently understood to be an imitation of the Tables of the Law. According to legend, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Menelik I, brought the Ark of the Covenant with the Tables of the Law from Jerusalem to Ethiopia, and they are now believed to be kept in Our Lady of Zion Cathedral in Axum.

The tabot are decorated with paintings or engravings depicting the particular saint to whom they are dedicated. The bishop consecrated the tabot, not the church, the tabot then confer­ring sanctity on the church. In a broader sense, the "tabot” an signify the sanctuary with the altar, as well as the whole church, which is dedicated to the tabot's patron saint.

While you may in rare cases be allowed to see the holy of holies, the tabot is never shown to the public. During proces­sions the priests carry the tabot on their heads, and it is covered on such occasions with an embroidered or brocaded cloth.

Authorities contend that the rock churches were not con­structed all at one time, and it has even been conjectured that the oldest are the more refined ones strictly adhering to Axumite style. While the first rock churches may originate from the late Axumite period and the newer ones in Ethiopia cer­tainly were constructed after Ahmed Gragn's devastating wars in the sixteenth century, the most important ones, in par­ticular in Lasta, which includes Lalibela, were all created dur­ing the Zagwe period.

It is also assumed, though not proven that at least the senior craftsmen came from other regions, e.g. Egypt or Jerusalem. A nineteenth century traveller is said to have seen a manuscript according to which King Lalibela hired foreign craftsmen, and a similar document is said to be in the possession of Bet Maryam But here, too thorough research is required to clarify the problem.

The paintings in the churches are all from a later date some originating in the fifteenth century, some in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Byzantine motifs are found in fifteenth century paintings proving long standing contact with the Byzantine world.

The rock churches thus reflect the blending of Axumite tradition and early eastern Mediterranean Christianity: Yet they are an entirely new creation of early Christian art on Ethiopian soil.