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The Monolithic Churches of Ethiopia

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Haley is a professional nerd with a penchant for researching history.

The Church of St. George, located in Lalibela, Ethiopia, is a pristine example of an Ethiopian Monolithic Church

The Church of St. George, located in Lalibela, Ethiopia, is a pristine example of an Ethiopian Monolithic Church

The Most Significant African Architectural Accomplishments

The most significant African architectural accomplishment, other than Egyptian architecture, includes the monolithic churches of Ethiopia. The monolithic churches are impressive not only because of their size, but also due to their diversity, and how these underground fortresses were built.

Ethiopia’s church buildings began to flourish in the Aksumite dynasty in the fourth century and continued through the Zagwe and Gondarine dynasties. Since Ethiopia held strong Christian views at this point in time, they focused their resources, time, and energy on building strong houses to worship in, similar to what many European societies did at this time.

However, the Ethiopian society had different influences, which caused their churches to have diverse architecture. In addition to local resources, Ethiopia sat in the middle of trade routes, which influenced architecture heavily. Ethiopia's location between the many different cultures explains why the architecture, art, food, and languages have so many small references to other cultures.

The monolithic churches change shape over time, beginning with rock-hewn, straight lines of the architecture shown in the Church of Saint George built in the 12th century, and changed to more challenging, rounded shapes of the 16th and 17th centuries after the Portuguese invaded.

List of Ethiopian Monolithic Churches

The 11 Monolithic Churches of Ethiopia are located in Lalibela, Ethiopia. This area was considered "New Jerusalem" by some and became a place of pilgrimage.

The Northern Group:

  • Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), home to the Lalibela Cross.
  • Biete Maryam (House of Miriam/House of Mary), possibly the oldest of the churches, and a replica of the Tombs of Adam and Christ
  • Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael), known for its arts and said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela)
  • Biete Meskel (House of the Cross)
  • Biete Denagel (House of Virgins)

The Western Group:

  • Biete Giyorgis (Church of Saint George)

The Eastern Group:

  • Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), possibly the former royal chapel
  • Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St Mercoreos/House of St Mark), thought to be a former prison
  • Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos)
  • Biete Gabriel-Rufael (House of the angels Gabriel, and Raphael) linked to a holy bakery
  • Biete Lehem (Bethlehem Hebrew: בֵּית לֶחֶם, House of Holy Bread).

How Were the Monolithic Churches Built?

The Ethiopian Monolithic Churches were built sometime in the 12th and 13th centuries.

They are carved directly out of the "living" stone of the area. This means that the majority (or in some cases all of it) of the building is carved from a single piece of rock. This type of architecture is referred to as "rock-cut architecture".

The rock was chiseled to create doors, windows, columns, etc. and the debris was removed via a large system of drainage ditches and trenches. There are even catacombs built into some of these areas.

These buildings are completely man-made by excavating rock. Structures that are built around caves and caverns are not considered rock-cut architecture.

Diversity of Monolithic Church Architecture

These monolithic churches are also impressive because of their diversity.

Variations include:

  • built carved into the sides of cliffs
  • built into the earth or created within grottos
  • One of the churches of Lalibela is built almost forty feet into the ground.

These monolithic pieces of architecture also vary with how these churches are adorned. This includes an impressive amount of decorations, frescoes, and arabesques with a variety of architectural feats, while others are built in a simpler style that seems to consider functionality as beauty.

Importance of Non-Western History

Although the modern world tends to ignore the impressive deeds of other non-western societies, the Ethiopian nation has constructed magnificently unique buildings that rival the beauty and awe of churches in of other countries.