Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela
The 11 medieval monolithic cave churches of this 13th-century ‘New Jerusalem’ are situated in a mountainous region in the heart of Ethiopia near a traditional village with circular-shaped dwellings. Lalibela is a high place of Ethiopian Christianity, still today a place of pilmigrage and devotion..
Outstanding Universal Value
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.
The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are exceptionally fine examples of a long-established Ethiopian building tradition. Monolithic churches are to be found all over the north and the centre of the country. Some of the oldest of such churches are to be found in Tigray, where some are believed to date from around the 6th or 7th centuries. King Lalibela is believed to have commissioned these structures with the purpose of creating a holy and symbolic place which considerably influenced Ethiopian religious beliefs.
The 11 medieval monolithic cave churches of this 13th-century ‘New Jerusalem’ are situated in a mountainous region in the heart of Ethiopia near a traditional village with circular-shaped dwellings. Lalibela is a high place of Ethiopian Christianity, still today a place of pilgrimage and devotion.
Lalibela is a small town at an altitude of almost 2,800 m in the Ethiopian highlands. It is surrounded by a rocky, dry area. Here in the 13th century devout Christians began hewing out the red volcanic rock to create 13 churches. Four of them were finished as completely free-standing structures, attached to their mother rock only at their bases. The remaining nine range from semi-detached to ones whose facades are the only features that have been ‘liberated’ from the rock.
The Jerusalem theme is important. The rock churches, although connected to one another by maze-like tunnels, are physically separated by a small river which the Ethiopians named the Jordan. Churches on one side of the Jordan represent the earthly Jerusalem; whereas those on the other side represent the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of jewels and golden sidewalks alluded to in the Bible.
It was King Lalibela who commissioned the structures, but scholars disagree as to his motivation. According to a legendary account, King Lalibela was born in Roha. His name means ‘the bee recognizes its sovereignty’. God ordered him to build 10 monolithic churches, and gave him detailed instructions as to their construction and even their colours. When his brother Harbay abdicated, the time had come for Lalibela to fulfil this command. Construction work began and is said to have been carried out with remarkable speed, which is scarcely surprising, for, according to legend, angels joined the labourers by day and at night did double the amount of work which the men had done during the hours of daylight.
Like more episodes in the long history of this country, there are many legends about this king. One is that Lalibela was poisoned by his brother and fell into a three-day coma in which he was taken to Heaven and given a vision of rock-hewn cities. Another legend says that he went into exile to Jerusalem and vowed that when he returned he would create a New Jerusalem. Others attribute the building of the churches to Templars from Europe.
The names of the churches evoke hints of Hebrew, a language related to the Hamo-Semitic dialect still used in Ethiopian church liturgies: Beta Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), Beta Qedus Mikael (House of St Michael) and Beta Amanuel (House of Emmanuel) are all reminiscent of the Hebrew beth (house). In one of the churches there is a pillar covered with cotton. A monk had a dream in which he saw Christ kissing it; according to the monks, the past, the present and the future are carved into it. The churches are connected to each other by small passages and tunnels.
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.
Criterion (i): All the eleven churches represent a unique artistic achievement, in their execution, size and the variety and boldness of their form.
Criterion (ii): The King of Lalibela set out to build a symbol of the holy land, when pilgrimages to it were rendered impossible by the historical situation. In the Church of Biet Golgotha, are replicas of the tomb of Christ, and of Adam, and the crib of the Nativity. The holy city of Lalibela became a substitute for the holy places of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and as such has had considerable influence on Ethiopian Christianity.
Criterion (iii): The whole of Lalibela offers an exceptional testimony to the medieval and post-medieval civilization of Ethiopia, including, next to the eleven churches, the extensive remains of traditional, two storey circular village houses with interior staircases and thatched roofs.
The drainage ditches were filled up with earth for several centuries, before being cleared in the 20th century, and have been disrupted by seismic activity. This has resulted in a severe degradation of the monuments from water damage, and most of them are now considered to be in a critical condition.
Structural problems have been identified in Biet Amanuel where an imminent risk of collapse is possible, and other locations need to be monitored. Serious degradation of the paintings inside the churches has occurred over the last thirty years. Sculptures and bas-reliefs (such as at the entrance of Biet Mariam) have also been severely damaged, and their original features are hardly recognisable. All of this threatens the integrity of the property.
Temporary light-weight shelters have now been installed over some churches and these, while offering protection, impact on visual integrity.
Other threats include encroachment on the environment of the churches by new public and private construction, housing associated with the traditional village adjacent to the property, and from the infrastructure of tourism.
The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela are still preserved in their natural settings. The association of the rock-hewn churches and the traditional vernacular circular houses, in the surrounding area, still demonstrate evidences of the ancient village layout. The original function of the site as a pilgrimage place still persists and provides evidence of the continuity of social practices. The intangible heritages associated with church practices are still preserved.
Protection and management requirements
For centuries, the Church and State have been jointly responsible for the holy site of Lalibela. Home to a large community of priests and monks, it is a living site which draws many pilgrims to celebrate the great feasts of the Ethiopian Christian calendar. This active and energetic perspective is central to the management of the site.
No special legal framework is provided to protect the Rock-Hewn Churches except the general law, Proclamation No. 209/2000, which has also established the institution in charge, the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH). With the Ethiopian Church as a partner, the ARCCH has a representative in Lalibela but a principle difficulty has been the harmonization of the different projects and effective coordination between the partners.
The property is administered under the regional and the Lasta district culture and tourism office. To prevent the property from the impact of development, a draft proclamation has been prepared but this is not yet ratified. A management plan has not yet been established. A four year Conservation Plan was established in 2006 but this has yet to be fully implemented.
The boundary for the property has not yet been clearly delineated and a buffer zone has not yet been provided.
There is a need for stronger planning controls for the setting of the churches that address housing, land-use tourism and for a management plan to be developed that integrates the Conservation action plan, and addresses the overall sustainable development of the area, with the involvement of the local population.