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Series: Medieval History
King Lalibala and his Monolithic Churches
Harbe, whose history we considered last week. was succeeded by his brother Lalibala. The best known of the Zagwe rulers he is renowned as a great builder, or, more exactly, excavator of rock-hewn churches.
Lalibala and Legend
Lalibala’s life is enshrined in legend. It is traditionally claimed that he was surrounded, shortly after his birth, by a cloud of bees, whereupon his mother, seized by the spirit of prophecy, cried out, `The bees know that this child will become king!’. He was accordingly named Lalibala, which means, `The bee recognises his sovereignty’.
Lalibala, and no doubt other members of his dynasty, are said to have also asserted their legitimacy by reference to Biblical writ. They are reported to have identified themselves with Moses, who, according to the Book of Numbers, 12:1, had `married an Ethiopian woman’. Abu Salih, probably reflecting a contemporary local tradition, claims that the Zagwe ruler was ‘of the family of Moses and Aaron, on account of the coming of Moses into Abyssinia’, and that Moses had `married the king’s daughter’.
Lalibala, who, like some of his predecessors, had his capital at a place called Edessa, appears to have turned his attention to a nearby site called Roha, where the land lent itself to the excavation of rock-hewn churches. The locality was renamed Al-Roha, the Arabic name for Edessa, the holy city of Syrian Christendom. There he reputedly built a group of rock-hewn churches, for which he was canonised. They were so remarkable that after his death the place was renamed Lalibala in his honour.
Great as was Lalibala’s reported contribution to the excavation of rock-hewn churches, it should be emphasised that neither he nor his dynasty was in the initiator of them. Monolithic churches, some in the vicinity of Aksum, probably date back long before the Zagwe to within a century or two of the coming of Christianity, and over a hundred have been described in Tegray alone. Rock-hewn churches can moreover be seen all over Ethiopia, from east of Keren, in Eritrea, to the vicinity of Goba, in Bal, a thousand miles away in the south.
The rock churches of Lalibala are unique, not so much for their beauty and architectural distinction – remarkable as this is, but because they were located in close proximity to each other. Eleven churches are situated in two clusters within little more than a stone’s throw apart. Whether they were all originally churches is, however, uncertain, and perhaps doubtful. One or more may well have originally been secular buildings, later converted for ecclesiastical use. Over a dozen other churches, several very remarkable, are also to be found within a day or so’s journey of the town.
The first foreign traveller to describe the Lalibala churches was the early sixteenth century Portuguese traveller Francisco Alvares. Recalling the impression they made on him, he concludes:
`It wearied me to write more of these works, because it seemed to me that they will not believe me if I write more, and because as to what I have already written they will accuse me of untruth. Therefore I swear by God, in whose power I am, that all that is written is the truth, and there is much more than I have written, and I have left it that they may not tax me with its being falsehood’.
The churches, several of which we will consider in greater detail next week, are eleven in number. They are clustered in two main groups, with a further isolated church apart from the rest.
The first, and larger, group consists of six churches, namely those of Madhane Alem, Maryam, Denagel, and in close proximity to each other, Sellase, Mika’el and Masqal.
The other group comprises four places of worship, i.e. those of Amanu’el, Marqorewos, Abba Libanos, and Gabr’el-Rufa’el.
The single isolated church is that of Giyorgis, i.e. St. George, which is cruciform in shape.
Two of the above structures, Marqorewos and Gabr’el-Rufa’el , may originally have been intended for secular use.
Marqorewos, unlike other Ethiopian churches, does not face to the East, which would suggest that it was probably not at first conceived as a place of worship. Gabr’el-Rufa’el has a monument facade, which leads some authorities to believe that it may have been once a palace. This view is reinforced by the fact that iron shackles have been found in that church, giving rise to the belief that captives may once have been held prisoner there. (It was not unusual in Ethiopia for palaces to have a room, or rooms, of detention attached to them).
Abba Libanos, according to tradition, was actually the work of Lalibala’s widow Masqal Kebra.