<< Back to all articles
Articles in this series:
Series: Medieval History
The Lalibala Churches
The largest, noblest, and perhaps historically most interesting, of the Lalibala churches is that of MadhaneAlam, or Saviour of the World. Some scholars believe it may actually have been modelled on the old Church of St Mary of Seyon at Aksum, which was then extant.
Madhane Alam, which is no less than 33.5 metres long, 23.5 metres wide, and 11 metres high, is unusual in having an external colonnade of pillars on all four sides. These columns extend from its main plinth to its gabled roof which they support. Like the old St Mary of Seyon, the church has a nave and four isles, and four rows of seven pillars, each carved from the single block of stone which forms the church. These pillars rise straight from the stone floor, without any bases, and are surmounted by stone brackets to support the continuous barrel vault of the nave and the lateral and traverse semi-circular arches of the aisles.
The principal door is in the centre of the west front. There are also doors on the north and south sides. The doors have semi-circular arches supported by brackets. There are two rows of windows. The upper, which are decorated with diaper patterns, have round arches supported by brackets. The lower windows on the other hand are rectangular, and filled with panels of pierced stone ornamented with a central cross. The beauty of the interior lies in the gracious lines of its many columns and arches. These are often fitfully illuminated by rays of light, which glance upon them through the arched doors and interstices of the pierced stonework.
Also of special interest at Lalibala is the church of Amanu’el, a structure of almost perfect workmanship, which harks back to Yemrahana Krestos. The walls thus project and recess alternately, and, though cut from a single block of stone, are carved to make them appear as if made of horizontal bands of timber and stone. Some of the windows are cut in the same shape as the decorative device on the top of the principal Aksum obelisks, while others have arches supported by brackets resembling those of Madhane Alam. The interior has five bays. Rectangular columns separate nave and isles. There is a dome over the sanctuary, a barrel vault over the nave, and a beautifully carved frieze. A spiral staircase leads to the upper gallery with several small chambers.
The church of Maryam differs from the other Lalibala churches in having three exterior porches built out from the main structure. Above the west porch is a fine bas-relief of St George engaged in combat with the dragon. The church has a nave and two aisles formed by two rows of five piers. There are three chapels at one end, each with its own altar, and an upper story or loft over each aisle. The church is unusual in being situated in a courtyard with two other monolithic structures. The church’s interior is richly painted, with remarkable frescoes. The capitals, the soffits of some semi-circular arches, and some of the piers are beautifully carved in low relief, with such ornament as foliage, birds and animals, and the two-headed eagle.
Very different again is the Church of Giyorgis, or St George, which stands somewhat apart from the two main groups of churches. One of the most elegant of the Lalibala structures it is excavated in the form of a Greek cross. It too imitates Aksumite architecture, as evident from its representation of horizontal wooden beams and stonework, its doors and windows, which are reminiscent of the obelisks, and its numerous `monkey heads’.
The seven other Lalibala churches, each of which is well executed, but of entirely different design, comprise Golgotha (in which Emperor Lalibala is supposedly buried), Mika’el, Masqal, Denagel, Marqorwos, Libanos, and Gabr’el.
Lalibala established this remarkable group of churches, it is believed, in order to make them, and hence his capital, a major place of pilgrimage. Support for this view is found in the Gadla Lalibala, or Acts of Lalibala, which claims that a visit to the churches was equivalent to seeing the face of Christ. In establishing his capital as a place of pilgrimage Lalibala may have been influenced by the fact that Jerusalem, hitherto the country’s principal pilgrimage site, had been captured by the Muslims, and was therefore difficult of access. He may also have felt that Jerusalem was too far from Lasta and its environs, which were of course much further inland than Aksum.
Be that as it may, there seems to have a deliberate attempt at Lalibala to simulate the Holy City. A number of places in and around the Lasta capital were thus given Biblical names. A local hill was called Calvary and a stream Jordanos, after the Jordan river, while several graves were referred to as those of Adam, Christ, and other Biblical personages.
Lalibala’s efforts to make his capital a pilgrimage centre were remarkably successful. Over the centuries innumerable pilgrims from far and near made their way to the city, and on religious festivals congregated around its remarkable churches, as they do to this day.
The Decline of the Zagwe Dynasty
Lalibala, generally regarded as the greatest of the Zagwe rulers, was succeeded by his nephew Na’akuto La’ab, who built a beautiful church in a cave half a day’s journey from Lalibala, for which he too was canonised. His reign was, however, reportedly fraught with difficulties, as a result of which he abdicated, or was deposed, in favour of Lalibala’s son Yetbaraq.
Difficulties within the ruling family appear to have coincided with increasing regional opposition to Zagwe rule. This appears to have centred mainly in Tegray, Amhara and Shawa, and to some extent in the south-westerly province of Damot. Opposition also came from prominent churchmen, several apparently related to one of the Zagwe’s principal opponents, the Shawan prince Yekuno Amlak. Church opponents included Abba Iyasus Mo’a, abbot of the monastery of Dabra Hayq, and Abba Takla Haymanot, abbot of Dabra Libanos.
Such combined opposition proved decisive. It led, around 1270, to the overthrow of the Zagwe dynasty, and resulted in another major shift in the centre of political power, this time to Shawa, where Yekuno Amlak established himself on the throne. He thereby established a new dynasty, which was to dominate Ethiopia for over half a millennium.