The Lalibela Churches

The City of Priests and Rock-Hewn Churches

Lalibela

Lalibela is a town in northern Ethiopia famous for monolithic rock-cut churches. Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities. The population of Lalibela is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. Ethiopia is one of the earliest nations to adopt Christianity in the first half of the fourth century, and its historical roots date to the time of the Apostles. The layout and names of the major buildings in Lalibela are widely accepted, especially by local clergy, to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem. This has led some experts to date the current church forms to the years following the capture of Jerusalem in 1187 by Muslim leader, Saladin. This rural town is known around the world for its churches carved from within the earth from living rock, which play an important part in the history of rock-cut architecture. Though the dating of the churches is not well established, most are thought to have been built during the reign of Lalibela, namely during the 12th and 13th centuries. Contrary to theories advocated by writers like Graham Hancock, according to Buxton the great rock-hewn churches of Lalibela were not built with the help of the Knights Templar; asserting abundant evidence exists to show that they were produced solely by medieval Ethiopian civilization. For example, while Buxton notes the existence of a tradition that “Abyssinians invoked the aid of foreigners” to construct these monolithic churches, and admits that “there are clearly signs of Coptic influence in some decorative details” (hardly surprising given the theological, ecclesiastical, and cultural links between the Ethiopian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox Churches), he is adamant about the native origins of these creations: “But the significant fact is remains that the rock-churches continue to follow the style of the local built-up prototypes, which themselves retain clear evidence of their basically Axumite origin.”

The churches are also a significant engineering feat, given that they are all associated with water (which fills the wells next to many of the churches) exploiting an artesian geological system that brings the water up to the top of the mountain ridge on which the city rests.

Lalibela was the refuge for one of Christianity’s most interesting heresies, known as Monophysitism. This belief states that Christ was both divine and human before his incarnation but that his divine nature left his body and only reentered it after the Resurrection. First professed at the 2nd Council of Ephesus in 449 AD and soon thereafter condemned as heresy at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Monophysitism spread through Asia Minor into Africa and Ethiopia. In different forms it survives today in the Syrian Orthodox church, the Armenian church, the Coptic church of Egypt and Ethiopian Orthodoxy.

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