Monday, January 23, 2017

Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela


In a mountainous region in the heart of Ethiopia, some 645 km from Addis Ababa, eleven medieval monolithic churches were carved out of rock. Their building is attributed to King Lalibela who set out to construct in the 12th century a ‘New Jerusalem’, after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the holy Land. Lalibela flourished after the decline of the Aksum Empire.


There are two main groups of churches – to the north of the river Jordan: Biete Medhani Alem  (House of the Saviour of the World), Biete  Mariam (House of Mary), Biete  Maskal (House of the Cross), Biete Denagel (House of Virgins), Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael); and to the south of the river, Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercoreos), Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos), Biete Gabriel Raphael (House of Gabriel Raphael), and Biete Lehem (House of Holy Bread). The eleventh church, Biete Ghiorgis (House of St. George), is isolated from the others, but connected by a system of trenches.
The churches were not constructed in a traditional way but rather were hewn from the living rock of monolithic blocks. These blocks were further chiselled out, forming doors, windows, columns, various floors, roofs etc. This gigantic work was further completed with an extensive system of drainage ditches, trenches and ceremonial passages, some with openings to hermit caves and catacombs.



Biete Medhani Alem, with its five aisles, is believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, while Biete Ghiorgis has a remarkable cruciform plan. Most were probably used as churches from the outset, but Biete Mercoreos and Biete Gabriel Rafael may formerly have been royal residences. Several of the interiors are decorated with mural paintings.



Near the churches, the village of Lalibela has two storey round houses, constructed of local red stone, and known as the Lasta Tukuls. These exceptional churches have been the focus of pilgrimage for Coptic Christians since the 12th century.

Quick Facts on Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela

When was Lalibela built?
The 11 churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia were commissioned in the 12th Century when travel to the Hold Land became dangerous.
Built on stretches of volcanic tuff, workers carved down into the ground to form the churches inside and out.
In 1978 the churches became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Who was King Lalibela?
Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (reigned early 13th century), also called simply Lalibela, which means "the bees recognise his sovereignty" in Old Agaw, was negus or king of Ethiopia and a member of the Zagwe dynasty. He is also considered a saint by the Ethiopian church.

When were churches built?

After the death of the Roman emperor Constantine in 337 A.D. Christians were allowed to have buildings to worship in. These first churches were built on a similar plan to Roman basilicas. This plan was later used for the fine Gothic cathedrals and churches that were built at the end of the Middle Ages.


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