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The wondrous rock hewn churches of Lalibela

Hiruy Simie 

The rock- hewn churches of Lalibela are called the eighth wonders of the world. Until today, many people had speculated about how these churches were made.  Some of these speculations have proven to be wild and unfounded.  Nonetheless, those who studied the rock- hewn churches of Lalibela critically have come to the conclusion that these churches were made in a manner which is unexplainable scientifically.


Therefore, the churches of Lalibela stand unique from any rock- carved building found in this world. This can be explained in terms of architectural, technological and historical evidences. Rock hewn palaces are found throughout the Middle East and South Arabia. They, however, have no similarity with Lalibela. For instance, the stone-hewn palaces of Petra are structures which had been curved on a cliff face and are neither sizable nor detached from the cliff they were made from. Hence, there is no point that makes them similar with those found in Lalibela. The same can be said to the others found in the region.  Lalibela’s churches had been hewn most probably from top to bottom. Hence, the old tradition of hewing a church from a cliff face has not been attempted here. The church of Adadi Mariam is a good illustration of this point. This church is circular and can’t be made by hewing the rock from a cliff face. King Lalibela is known for hewing other monolithic churches other than those found in Roha.  One amongst them is Addadi Mariam in Showa; the other is found in Gishen Mariam in Wollo, and the others in some other places.


Many western writers had written saying that Egyptian and Indian stone curves were involved in the making of Lalibela (Doress, 1959; Henze, 2004; Budge, 1928). Others have stated that there are Arab and Byzantine architectural elements in these churches (Sergew, p.274).  They, however, were not able to show rock-hewn palaces, churches or temples in other countries with a striking similarity with those found in Lalibela. Moreover, the so called architectural evidences for the presence of Indians in the hewing process of Lalibela are simply the swastika cross type in the windows of these churches. The swastika is Ethiopic in its origin and there is no evidence that makes it an Indian innovation. In addition to that, according to the Ethiopian tradition there is no mention of Indians during the hewing process of these churches. Today it is proven beyond doubt that there are many designs that show Aksumite traditional architecture in the churches of Lalibela. Such designs can be well observed on the doors, windows and interior colonnades of the churches. Therefore, such a critic is nothing but a misinterpretation of history and not an actual intellectual work.


 The other fascinating aspect of the Lalibela churches is the technology involved in their making. No one can explain the technology employed for the construction of the churches of Lalibela. The Ethiopian tradition has it that the men hew the solid rock all day fasting and praying while they were at it, for the assistance of God; at night angels of God would descend from heaven to hew more than all what the men had done at day time. Thus, the men wondered how the work could progress so fast. Only Lalibela saw the angles and since they also knew his virtue, they did not hide anything from him (Budge, 1928). The symmetry, precision, perfection and beauty of these churches have been described as superhuman and it is not really difficult to attribute these churches as the works of angels. Moreover, science has been in the past and even today challenged successfully over many things for any explanation.  For instance, the Mayan lost city and a sort of runaway has been described by so called Scientists as the works of UFOs. We know today that such an explanation to be ridiculously fictitious. Compared with this; the idea of angels involving in human life has a firm ground of belief dating a span of time more than 5000 years.


Moreover, the tradition of making rock hewn churches is not something that belong only to the past in Ethiopia. An illustrious example is the churches of Saria Michael and Dagmawi Gologota which have been hewn in the late 20th century. The hewer of Saria Michael Abuna Haile Giorgis once said that the churches were built with the help of St. Gabriel. Abuna Haile Giorgis explained the way it happened in the following manner.


“Latter on in life I became old and weak. I couldn’t lift the ax I used previously to hew these churches that you see here. I was not able to hew the church of St. Gabrel that I planned to do so long ago. I mourned for these reason and prayed for the angel to build it himself. The next day there was a thunderstorm and I came out of the small cave I was making on the cliff face to see it. I intended to dedicate that as a chapel to St. Gabriel anyway. Immediately as soon as I came out of it, a succession of lightning bolts struck the cave I have already formed and it reduced it in a minute to a huge cavern. From that moment on I have only the task of taking out the derbies. It took me six months to do only that even when I worked day and night at that.”


 The Geez word Roha has a meaning “he polished” which might imply that even before the time of  Lalibela hewing a living rock until it looks ‘well polished’ might have been practiced there. In addition this might imply that the rock hewing tradition has been inherited by the Zagwe from the Axumites. We know for sure that king Caleb had come to Roha to build monolithic churches many centuries before Lalibela. He is also attributed for the hewing of semi- Monolitic churches in the region (See the article on Bilbala Giorgis on this Site). 


There has been an attempt in recent times to estimate the quantity of hewn stone taken out from the churches of Lalibela.  Paul b. Henze stated that it equaled five times the stone taken out of Abue Simbel. There is however no research and an evidence for this assertion. In fact according to experts the twelve rock hewn churches can produce such an immense quantity of stone that it would be virtually impossible to carryout, transport and dispose the debris without a trace. This is the other part that fills the mind of a wise man with wonder.  These, churches which are a glory to the eye of all are becoming old due to damages from weather. Renovations with out any consultation of professionals have resulted in irreversible damage. For instance the church of Bete Gabriel has been rebuilt by taking down its damage rock walls with blockets. 


Therefore, these world heritage sights are worthy of attention from all and especially from the laity who must preserve it as a rare stamp of God in a world of Sin.

Glory to God and holy Mary!


Some References
Doress,  Ethiopia. (tr.) Elas coult (London, 1959)

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