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The Rock-Hewn Churches of Ethiopia

We’ve never done a post on architecture. But as far as I’m concerned, this is sculpture rather than architecture. That’s because The Church of St George in Lalibela, Ethiopia was not technically built, it was carved from a bed of volcanic rock. I gave you two views so you can appreciate the accomplishment. Builders excavated about 40 feet down to create a cruciform church with its roof at ground level. Then they carved out the interior. There are ten others very similar to it in the region, all about 800 years or older, all done with just hammers and chisels.

The group of churches was largely the pet project of King Lalibela. The legend that has piled up over the centuries says the secrets for their construction were communicated to him by angels. He wrote their instructions down on a stone pillar in Bet Maryam, one of the churches, and covered that pillar with cloth to protect those secrets. I hear the pillar still stands and that it’s still covered to guard what’s written. Even if angels told him how to go about the task, I am certain they didn’t excavate and carve the buildings. The labor was left to more earthly means, some of which we would not approve of today. At least one of the King’s goals for the building spree was to replicate Jerusalem in his homeland. Muslim conquests had cut African Christians off from pilgrimages to the original holy city so he set out to build his own. But whatever his motives were then, later in life he underwent a conversion experience that was so powerful he gave up his throne and lived the rest of his life as a saintly hermit. This particular church was built as a memorial to him after the king’s death.

You can learn a lot more by Googling ‘rock hewn churches of Ethiopia,’ if you’re interested. Time and erosion have put the structures in danger now and several organizations are scrambling to shore them up for future generations. I hope they last long enough so I can pray there myself someday.

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