For the third instalment from my series of posts tracing my journey within Ethiopia in 2014, I present the carved stone churches of Lalibela. Yes, these 11 churches were carved from the ground downwards out of solid granite, which has a reddish-pink hue. So popular history goes, King Lalibela, upon returning from his visit to Jerusalem in the 12th century, & being much impressed with the architecture, decided to convert the tiny town of Roha into a religious centre that to this day is a wonder of physical acheivement, but there are several conflicting variations of the history of the creation of these wonderful monoliths.
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There is much historical contestment about who carved out the churches of Lalibela, & when; also that some of them may not even have been designed as churches at all (our guide informed us that those not aligned east-west are not considered churches by the native orthodox Christian priests, & therefore mass cannot be performed within them). I have compiled a list of links at the foot of this post for further reading if you wish to research the subject for yourself in more depth.
Prior to our arrival by flight & bus to Lalibela we had spent a couple of days in Bahir Dar, where I fell ill. I think I was under the influence of heat stroke, since during one afternoon we crossed Lake Tana twice beneath the suns zenith (to visit monasteries), which took several hours. Although I considered myself protected well enough from the rays overhead, I hadn't counted on the reflection from the surface of the lake. I was confined to my hotel bed for about a 12 hour spell, unable to consume more than water, during which time I watched an apalling X-Files film, & sweated profusely & incessantly. The following day, not feeling much better, I managed to consume a little light breakfast before we made our way to the airport, where I resisted fainting several times, leaning against walls & suckling on a water bottle. Upon arrival to 'Top Twelve Hotel' in Lalibela (our place of stay, so named for having 12 rooms with (undeniably) 'top' views) I immediately took to sleeping a further 6 hours, while mi camarada Pablo visited local attractions unbeknownst to myself, (well at least that's what he later said...). When I finally emerged from my cot, the malady receded, I wandered downstairs to the hotel terrace where I found a table to sit at, & was provided with soup, bread & coffee to reinvigorate my weakened form. Here is the view to which I was exposed.
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So the first night of our stay in Lalibela passed with myself retiring to bed early to recuperate, & Pablo venturing to a nearby spirally designed restaurant run by an elderly, but vigorous Scottish woman.
The next day we awoke early, showered, breakfasted & readied ourselves for the highlight of our visit, a tour of the famous churches of Lalibela. I had by now fully recovered & was equipped with cameras & lenses, ready for the full days shooting that lay ahead. Pablo had pre-arraned a guide for us, & after meeting him outside the hotel we were whisked away by bajaj (a little 3 wheeled motorbike taxi, similar to the tuk-tuk) to the site of the first & largest of the churches, Biete Medhane Alem, or 'House of the Saviour of the World', to begin our tour.
We spent the afternoon traversing the challenging channel/tunnel complex (which required nimbleness & dexterity at times), removing our shoes as required to enter each church as we explored. There were many priests wandering around between & within the churches, mostly seemingly just hanging around, though some were to be found alone in shady nooks reading texts or in prayer. Some were gathered in groups in particular rooms of churches, perhaps for communal prayer. All priests carry a traditional staff used in ritual, dance & ceremony, & to lean on, as they spend much time standing during such religious rites, & around the complex in conversation with each other.
The churches were carved manually using metal tools to hammer & chisel downwards from ground level......through granite, a very hard stone. Yes, it sounds unthinkable, but our guide informed us that this particular stone carving skill had developed in this region through local peoples inhabiting & extending inwards, their cave dwellings, over time immemorial. So King Lalibela simply harnessed the local 'work force' for the application of his monumental task, which took several decades or possibly centuries, as some historians argue. It has also been put forward that others apart from the local population may too have been involved in the work, as there are various architectural styles incorporated into the church designs & features (some of these being structural in nature, which obviously renders them technically redundant in a carved environment).
In return King Lalibela maybe offered protection to the peoples of the surrounding area. Apparently he was not a religious man before his trip to Jerusalem, but sought the favour of the Christian church, & with his undertaking such a grand venture, became & remained a devout orthodox Christian evermore. So much so, that after abdicating his throne Lalibela became a hermit for the last twenty years of his life, adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet & life of piety.
Much of the information our attentive & knowledgeable guide proffered us I must admit to having forgotten, though simultaneously I was engaged in ceaseless photographing, & not always paying 100% of my attention to him. At the time of my visit I had not begun this blog, & so my prerogative lay solely in personal experience, submersed in an environment of still warm air & the enigma of the unfolding tracts of time that revealed themselves to me as we progressed through our tour.
The churches are all connected to at least one other, overground via channels, or underground via tunnels, which were hewn through the granite substrata. They also have wells, & are surrounded by rooms carved outwards from the channels, used for storage & possibly living areas for the priests. In the walls of the spaces directly surrounding the churches there are to be found deep shelves which were carved for the interment of the dead.
Our guide informed us that some of the churches have deliberately carved Christian architectural features to distinguish them from churches of other religious strains. These of course are completely unnecessary architecturally since the churches are not structures & hence do not need, for example, vaulted ceilings to keep them from collapsing. There are also many ancient & modern paintings on show within the churches, presenting familiar Christian iconography, as well as murals & other painted embellishments on walls & ceilings. Windows too are often ornamentally carved, silhouetting symbols onto internal surfaces when bathed by the suns rays.
Our tour took several hours, though we took an hour for lunch at Hotel Seven Olives, where I ate pasta (Italian food is quite popular in Ethiopian restaurants, being a lasting cultural phenomena left over from their invasion & ensuing occupation from 1936 to 1941), & drank a lovely rich, bitter-smooth coffee.
There were two churches which caught my attention more than others. One, it is argued, is more than likely not a church at all, & may pre-date King Lalibela too. It is Biete Gabriel-Rufael, &, being set at a non east-west orientation, is not used by the native priests for religious mass. It is possible it pre-dates other local churches by centuries & may have been carved by the local Axumites. Accessible from the front by a small footbridge, it seems designed with fortification from assault in mind, being surrounded by a deep dyke with sheer walls. There is also a very large back door, fortified with large metal discs & with a massive ancient locking system, that would have only been openable from the outside with a large key, or internally by manipulating a mechanism. It resembles more a stone fort than a church, & is quite roughly hewn inside, with little ornamentation.
Well this blog post has turned out to be quite long, but, though I am not surprised, considering how much there is to take in when visiting the churches of Lalibela, I have done well to condense the tour into such few words, & hope the accompanying images will provide enough insight into the experience to fill in the gaps I am aware I have left.
I will leave you with some images of what is visually the most impressive church of the complex, the stunning Biete Giyorgis - House of St. George, which was ordered carved by the wife of Lalibela, Mesqel Kibra, after his death & in memory of him. It is cruciform & set apart from the rest of the complex, accessible overland or by tunnel from Biete Gabriel-Rufael & Biete Abba Libanos.
Without a doubt the church complex of Lalibela is an impressive feat of human labour, vision & determination.
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I am a freelance photographer specialising in performance arts.
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