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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela

The northern Ethiopian town of Lalibela contains the highest concentration of rock-hewn churches in the country. Constituting the major pilgrimage site for followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, its eleven churches are among the finest of Ethiopia’s nearly 200 rock-hewn churches.

The Lalibela churches take their form, placement, and orientation from both geological features and structures within the complex. While precise dating for the complex and its components has yet to be determined, scholars generally agree that it was constructed in four or five phases between the seventh and thirteenth centuries. Ethiopian tradition ascribes the whole complex’s construction to the reign of King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (r. ca. 1181–1221). According to the king’s hagiography (gadl), Lalibela carved the churches over a period of twenty-four years with the assistance of angels.

Carved into a rocky massif located approximately 2,630 meters above sea level at the base of Mount Abuna Yosef, the complex consists of two groups of churches and a single church divided by the river Yordannos (Jordan). The five churches of the northern group are: Biete Golgotha Mikael, Biete Mariam, Biete Denagel, Biete Maskal, and Biete Medhani Alem. The southern group contains another five churches: Biete Lehem, Biete Gabriel Rafael, Biete Abba Libanos, Biete Amanuel, and Biete Qeddus Mercoreus. A final church, Biete Ghiorgis, stands to the west of the southern group. A system of pathways links the churches and attendant ecclesiastical structures, including tombs, catacombs, and storerooms. Passing through this trench and tunnel system adds a physical dimension to the spiritual journey of moving between churches: narrow pathways guide visitors into a single file, allowing them to symbolically descend into the earth and up into heaven as a group.

The geology of the region partially determined the structure of the churches and their hydraulic systems. Igneous in nature, the rocky massif of the church complex is primarily composed of two kinds of volcanic basalt. The churches have been carved top-down from the sections of porous basaltic scoriae using chisels, axes, and other blades. Workers first traced the perimeter of the structure on the rock face, then isolated the main structure of the church. Finally, the inner mass was sculpted as the exterior was refined and ornamented. Unlike in built construction, where the last element constructed is at the top, this method of construction leaves the most recently hewn element at the bottom. To avoid flooding from underground rivers and water tables, the church builders excavated drainage canals and trenches. The roofs of the four freestanding monolithic churches slope at the same angle of the rocks from which they were carved, further promoting drainage. Additional hydraulic systems filled cisterns and baptismal pools, including the three pools in the courtyard of Biete Mariam.

The churches of Lalibela are square or rectangular in form, with basilical or cruciform plans. Except where geological formations forced alterations, the churches follow the Orthodox custom of placing a door at each of the western, northern, and southern sides. Steps and steep pedestals lead visitors upward into the churches, lifting them from the carved trenches and pathways. The doorways and window frames exhibit multiple typologies throughout the complex, including steleform, ogival, cruciform, and Aksumite. Both the steleform and Aksumite-style windows and doors are direct quotations from the architecture of the Aksumite empire, which reigned in present-day northern Ethiopia and Eritrea from the first through the eighth century. The circa tenth-century Aksumite architectural revival at Lalibela may have arisen to legitimate the rule of the Zagwe dynasty kings by visually linking them to the formerly powerful empire. Rising from a stepped podium, the church of Biete Amanuel best exemplifies this sculpted version of Aksumite architecture. All four facades are carved to resemble the empire’s favored building technique of layering long horizontal beams with mortar and stones, which created a rhythmic alternation of recessed and projecting surfaces. The upper and lower windows and doors appear to be framed by the wooden beam heads typical of Aksumite construction, while the central windows mimic the form of the monumental Aksumite stelae.

The rug-covered floors of the churches are roughly hewn, and rise or fall in height to delineate different sacred zones. Bracketed pillars support flat ceilings, barrel vaults, and domes, while partially carved structural elements indicate abandoned construction sites. Semi-circular arches dominate interior spaces, reflecting both Ethiopian architectural precedents and motifs common in manuscript illuminations. Many of the churches include friezes of blind or open Aksumite-style windows in the upper choir area. While the majority of churches have only geometric ornamentation, Biete Golgotha Mikael has bas-relief carvings of human figures on its interior walls, and Biete Mariam has an exterior frieze of horsemen, variously interpreted as saints or King Lalibela himself. Unique among the Lalibela churches, Biete Mariam retains vividly colored geometric and biblical scenes painted on shallowly carved walls, ceilings, and columns. Nearly all of the churches employ moldings and string courses to break their massive forms into smaller segments.

While the Lalibela complex is now considered a representation of the “New Jerusalem,” the dedications of the churches and their functions have changed over the centuries. The earliest constructions at Lalibela were civic: Biete Mercoreus and Biete Gabriel Rafael were likely royal palaces or fortresses built for defense. Other structures were converted to churches during later phases of occupation, especially as the location took on its current significance as a place of holy pilgrimage. The link between Lalibela and Jerusalem may have been related to Ethiopia’s historical claim of Solomonic royal descent, as well as to the twelfth-century fall of Jerusalem. In other cases, physical transformation—including structural collapse and flooding—forced the creation of new structures as older carvings were abandoned. Once a political center called Roha, the city became a religious center named after King Lalibela soon after his death.

Centuries after its construction, Lalibela remains home to a large community of Ethiopian Orthodox priests and nuns. Since the twelfth century, the city has been a continued site of religious practice and popular pilgrimage. Gatherings of pilgrims are especially large on major feast days and on Orthodox Christmas (Genna), held on January 7 in the Gregorian calendar. The focus of multiple conservation and restoration efforts since the 1960s, the Lalibela churches were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. Improved transportation to the site has increased the number of tourists and pilgrims visiting each year, making continued preservation and study efforts a high priority.