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Lalibela, Ethiopia
ላሊበላ
The Church of Saint George, one of many churches hewn into the rocky hills of Lalibela
Lalibela, Ethiopia is located in Ethiopia
Lalibela, Ethiopia
Location in Ethiopia
Coordinates: 12°02′N 39°02′E / 12.033°N 39.033°E / 12.033; 39.033
Country Ethiopia
Region Amhara Region
Zone Semien Wollo Zone
Population (2005)
 - Total 14,668 (est)
Time zone EAT (UTC+3)

Lalibela is a town in northern Ethiopia. Lalibela is one of Ethiopia's holiest cities, second only to Aksum, and is a center of pilgrimage for much of the country. Unlike Aksum, the population of Lalibela is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. Lalibela was intended to be a New Jerusalem in response to the capture of Jerusalem by Muslims, and many of its historic buildings take their name and layout from buildings in Jerusalem.[citation needed]

Located in the Semien Wollo Zone of the Amhara ethnic division, or kilil at 2,500 meters above sea level, Lalibela has a latitude and longitude of 12°02′N 39°02′E / 12.033°N 39.033°E / 12.033; 39.033Coordinates: 12°02′N 39°02′E / 12.033°N 39.033°E / 12.033; 39.033. Based on figures from the Central Statistical Agency in 2005, the town has an estimated total population of 14,668 of whom 7,049 were males and 7,619 were females.[1] The 1994 national census recorded its population to be 8,484 of whom 3,709 were males and 4,775 were females.

Contents

History

During the reign of Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (a member of the Zagwe Dynasty, who ruled Ethiopia in the late 12th century and early 13th century) the current town of Lalibela was known as Roha. The saintly king was given this name due to a swarm of bees said to have surrounded him at his birth, which his mother took as a sign of his future reign as Emperor of Ethiopia. The names of several places in the modern town and the general layout of the monolithic churches themselves are said to mimic names and patterns observed by Lalibela during the time he spent in Jerusalem and the Holy Land as a youth.

Lalibela is said to have seen Jerusalem and then attempted to build a new Jerusalem as his capital in response to the capture of old Jerusalem by Muslims in 1187. As such, many features have Biblical names - even the town's river is known as the River Jordan. It remained the capital of Ethiopia from the late 12th century and into the 13th century.

The first European to see these churches was the Portuguese explorer Pêro da Covilhã (1460 – 1526). Portuguese priest Francisco Álvares (1465 - 1540), who accompanied the Portuguese Ambassador on his visit to Lebna Dengel in the 1520s. His description of these structures concludes:

I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more ... I swear by God, in Whose power I am, that all I have written is the truth[2]

Priest with cross at Lalibela

Although Ramuso included plans of several of these churches in his 1550 printing of Álvares' book, it is not known who supplied him the drawings. The next reported European visitor to Lalibela was Miguel de Castanhoso, who served as a soldier under Christovão da Gama and left Ethiopia in 1544.[3] After de Castanhoso, over 300 years passed until the next European, Gerhard Rohlfs, visited Lalibela at some time between 1865 and 1870.

According to the Futuh al-Habasa of Sihab ad-Din Ahmad, Ahmad Gragn burned one of the churches of Lalibela during his invasion of Ethiopia.[4] However, Richard Pankhurst has expressed his skepticism about this event, pointing out that although Sihab ad-Din Ahmad provides a detailed description of a monolithic church ("It was carved out of the mountain. Its pillars were likewise cut from the mountain."[4]), only one church is mentioned; Pankhurst adds that "what is special about Lalibela (as every tourist knows) is that it is the site of eleven or so rock churches, not just one -- and they are all within more or less a stone's throw of each other!"[5] Pankhurst also notes that the Royal Chronicles, which mention Ahmad Gragn's laying waste to the district between July and September 1531, are silent about the Imam ravaging the fabled churches of this city.[6] He concludes with stating that had Ahmad Gragn burned a church at Lalibela, it was most likely Bete Medhane Alem; and if the Muslim army was either mistaken or misled by the locals, then the church he set fire to was Gannata Maryam, "10 miles east of Lalibela which likewise has a colonnade of pillars cut from the mountain".[7]

Churches

Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela*
UNESCO World Heritage Site

Church of Saint George.
State Party  Ethiopia
Type Cultural
Criteria i, ii, iii
Reference 18
Region** Africa
Inscription history
Inscription 1978  (2nd Session)
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.

This rural town is known around the world for its monolithic churches which play an important part in the history of rock-cut architecture. Though the dating of the churches is not well established, most are thought to have been built during the reign of Lalibela, namely during the 12th and 13th centuries. There are 13 churches, assembled in four groups:

The Northern Group: Bete Medhane Alem, home to the Lalibela Cross and believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, probably a copy of St Mary of Zion in Aksum. It is linked to Bete Maryam (possibly the oldest of the churches), Bete Golgotha (known for its arts and said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela), the Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam.

The Western Group: Bete Giyorgis, said to be the most finely executed and best preserved church.

The Eastern Group: Bete Amanuel (possibly the former royal chapel), Bete Merkorios (which may be a former prison), Bete Abba Libanos and Bete Gabriel-Rufael (possibly a former royal palace), linked to a holy bakery.

Farther afield lie the monastery of Ashetan Maryam and Yimrehane Kristos church (possibly eleventh century, built in the Aksumite fashion but within a cave).

There is some controversy as to when some of the churches were constructed. David Buxton established the generally-accepted chronology, noting that "two of them follow, with great fidelity of detail, the tradition represented by Debra Damo as modified at Yemrahana Kristos."[8] Since the time spent to carve these structures from the living rock must have taken longer than the few decades of King Lalibela's reign, Buxton assumes that the work extended into the 14th century.[9] However, David Phillipson, professor of African archeology at Cambridge University, has proposed that the churches of Merkorios, Gabriel-Rufael, and Danagel were initially carved out of the rock half a millennium earlier, as fortifications or other palace structures in the waning days of the Axumite Kingdom, and that Lalibela's name simply came to be associated with them after his death.[10] On the other hand, local historian Getachew Mekonnen credits Masqal Kibra, Lalibela's queen, with having one of the rock-hewn churches (Abba Libanos) built as a memorial for her husband after his death.[11]

Contrary to theories advocated by writers like Graham Hancock, the great rock-hewn churches of Lalibela were not built with the help of the Knights Templar; abundant evidence exists to show that they were produced solely by medieval Ethiopian civilization. For example, while Buxton notes the existence of a tradition that "Abyssinians invoked the aid of foreigners" to construct these monolithic churches, and admits that "there are clearly signs of Coptic influence in some decorative details" (hardly surprising given the theological, ecclesiastical, and cultural links between the Ethiopian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox Churches), he is adamant about the native origins of these creations: "But the significant fact is remains that the rock-churches continue to follow the style of the local built-up prototypes, which themselves retain clear evidence of their basically Axumite origin."[12]

The churches are also a significant engineering feat, given that they are all associated with water (which fills the wells next to many of the churches) exploiting an artesian geological system that brings the water up to the top of the mountain ridge on which the city rests.[13]

Other features

Man standing beside the walls of Bete Medhane Alem, believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world.

Lalibela is also home to an airport (ICAO code HALL, IATA LLI), a large market, two schools and a hospital. Lalibela is mentioned as "the city of priests and rock-hewn churches" in Tananarive Due's science-fiction novel My Soul to Keep.

Literature

Hancock, Graham, Carol Beckwith & Angela Fisher: African Ark - Peoples of the Horn, Chapter I: Prayers of Stone/The Christian Highlands: Lalibela and Axum, Harvill, An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, ISBN 0-00-272780-3

See also

References

  1. ^ CSA 2005 National Statistics, Table B.3
  2. ^ Francisco Alvarez, The Prester John of the Indies translated by C.F. Beckingham and G.W.B. Huntingford (Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1961), p. 226. Beckingham and Huntingford add an appendix which discuss Alvarez's description of these churches, pp. 526-42.
  3. ^ De Castanhoso's account is translated in R.S. Whiteway, The Portuguese Expedition to Ethiopia (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1902), pp. 94-98.
  4. ^ a b Sihab ad-Din Ahmad bin 'Abd al-Qader, Futuh al-Habasa: The conquest of Ethiopia, translated by Paul Lester Stenhouse with annotations by Richard Pankhurst (Hollywood: Tsehai, 2003), pp. 346f.
  5. ^ Pankhurst, "Did the Imam Reach Lalibela?" Addis Tribune, 21 November 2003
  6. ^ Sihab ad-Din Ahmad, Futuh al-Hasasa, p. 346n. 785.
  7. ^ Sihab ad-Din Ahmad, Futuh al-Hasasa, p. 346n. 786.
  8. ^ David Buxton, The Abyssinians (New York: Praeger, 1970), p. 110
  9. ^ Buxton, The Abyssinians, p. 108
  10. ^ "Medieval Houses of God, or Ancient Fortresses?" Archaeology (November/December, 2004), p. 10.
  11. ^ Getachew Mekonnen Hasen, Wollo, Yager Dibab (Addis Ababa: Nigd Matemiya Bet, 1992), p. 24.
  12. ^ Buxton, The Abysssinians, pp. 103f
  13. ^ Mark Jarzombek, “Lalibela and Libanos, the King and the Hydro-Engineer of the 13th Century,” Thresholds, pp. 78-82.

Further reading

  • David W. Phillipson, Ancient Churches of Ethiopia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). Chapter 5, "Lalibela: Eastern Complex and Beta Giyorgis"; Chapter 6, "Lalibela: Northern Complex and Conclusions"
  • Sylvia Pankhurst, "Ethiopia: a cultural history" (Lalibela House, Essex, 1955). Chapter 9, "The monolithic churches of Lalibela"
  • Paul B. Henze, "Layers of time: a history of Ethiopia" (Shama Books, Addis Ababa, 2004). Chapter 3: "Medieval Ethiopia: isolation and expansion"

External links



Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel

Contents
Bedrock church
Bedrock church

Lalibela is a city in Ethiopia that is a centre of pilgrimage for much of the country.

  • Lalibela is a home to an airport (ICAO code HALL, IATA HLL), Ethiopian Air lines has scheduled flights at least once a day. Flights are often overbooked: make sure you reconfirm your seat at least 1 day in advance and show up at the airport on time! Flights can also be rescheduled or cancelled at short notice because of weather or for operational reasons. The airport is mid-sized. For a tiny town like Lalibela, the airport seems over-sized. It is at least 30 minutes by shared taxi (40 birrs per person as of 2008) away from the town.
  • There is a daily bus from Addis-Ababa. It is a two-day journey with an overnight stop at Dessie. The bus passes through Woldia mid-morning and will pick up passengers from the bus station if it has room. Another bus runs daily from Woldia, leaving at dawn. Both the Woldia and Addis-Ababa buses depart Lalibela at 6am.
  • It is usually possible to get to/from Bahir Bar by bus in one day by changing buses at the village of Gashena, approximately 2 hours from Lalibela. If you are travelling to or from Gondar by bus, you will usually have to spend the night somewhere.
  • The drive from Gondar takes around 13 hours on a very rough and dusty road. The road is being upgraded, by the Chinese, but there is currently (April 2008) NO tarmac road into Lalibela from anywhere. The only piece of tarmac is from the airport into town.
  • You can rent minibuses to drive you around the city. They usually are found outside the air port. Unlike other bigger towns and cities in Ethiopia, There are NO blue and white minibuses that regularly run through the this small town. There also are few horse pulling carts.
  • You can walk safely around town (although people may look at you strangely or with amusement). School children may try to befriend you, and follow you around, perhaps begging.
Inside a Lalibela church
Inside a Lalibela church
  • This rural town is known around the world for its monolithic churches, which were built during the reign of Lalibela. There are 11 churches, assembled in three groups:
  • The Northern Group: Bete Medhane Alem, home to the Lalibela Cross and believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, probably a copy of St Mary of Zion in Aksum. It is linked to Bete Maryam (possibly the oldest of the churches), Bete Golgotha (known for its arts and said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela), the Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam.
  • The Western Group: Bete Giyorgis, said to be the most finely executed and best preserved church.
  • The Eastern Group: Bete Amanuel (possibly the former royal chapel), Bete Merkorios (which may be a former prison), Bete Abba Libanos and Bete Gabriel-Rufael (possibly a former royal palace), linked to a holy bakery.
  • Licensed guides are available from the tourist office in Lalibela for 150 birr per day. These guides are well trained and have an excellent working knowledge of the churches and good relationships with the priests. Unlicensed guides will approach you all over the village, but they often know very little about the churches and are best avoided.
  • The churches are open from 9:00 to 13:00 hours, and then from 14:00 to 17:00 hours.
  • Farther a field lie the monastery of Ashetan Maryam and Yimrehane Kristos church (possibly eleventh century, built in the Aksumite fashion but within a cave).
  • Contrary to certain spurious myths, the great rock-hewn churches of Lalibela were not built with the help of the Knights Templar; rather, they were produced solely by medieval Ethiopian civilization. However, there is controversy as to when the churches were constructed. Some scholars believe that the churches were built well before Lalibela and that Lalibela simply named them after himself.
  • Visit the weekly market (Saturday?) - not much you would want to buy, some local weaving possibly, but an invaluable insight into local life. Make sure you visit the donkey park.
  • yared, hawassa (south), 0913635985.  edit
  • Asheten Hotel, near the bus station, from Birr 100 (although you should be able to negotiate it down), nice and quiet place with hot showers.
  • Seven Olives Hotel, right next to the bus station, Birr 130. Nice grounds, with hot showers and a good restaurant.

Get out

Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives (TESFA)[1] offers an excellent multi-day hiking programme along an escarpment in the area south of Lalibela. You travel with a trained guide and stay overnight in huts in local villages. A percentage of the funds they raise stays in the local communites. The hikes range from 2 to 5 days.

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