The apotheosis of Christian worship in Ethiopia is Lalibela, which is named after the sovereign who lived between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
At the time, the expansion of Islam had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem difficult for the faithful: King Lalibela then thought of setting up an Ethiopian Jerusalem, complete with Golgotha, the Sepulchre, Jordan and even a Sinai. But King Lalibela’s dream did not translate simply into an ambitious complex of churches, a concentration of places intended for devotion. The most disconcerting aspects of the churches of Lalibela’s system, connected by a labyrinth of steps and walkways, are their strictly monolithic character (except of course for the restoration work completed in recent times), and the constructive logic that presided over their creation. The Church of Saint George, much more than any other in Lalibela, provides the example of the visually and technically striking.
Architecturally a sublimation of the Aksumite matrix forms, the Church of Saint George stands out with its flat roof in the form of a Greek cross in the area of rock in which it was carved out: the church, in fact, was ‘built’ (the verb is in this case all the more improper) from the top down by the progressive removal of material, about 3,500 cubic meters of rock to make the space around the church, and about 500 to empty the inside. The Church of Saint George is, in practice, an enormous sculpture. Contemporary testimonies of the procedure adopted for this huge work do not exist: in any case works like the monolithic churches of Lalibela have no comparison in the world, except in the case of a Hindu temple in Maharashtra.
Debra Libanos, the reference point
What leads the huge masses of pilgrims who come from all parts of Ethiopia to Lalibela is not, however, the artistic value of its churches, but its character as a holy city of Ethiopia. In order to express the faith much less than the Church of Saint George is required. The theatre in 1937 of a brutal massacre of the monks, during the Italian reprisals following the attack on Graziani, Debra Libanos, a crucial reference place of Ethiopian Christianity, a hundred kilometers north of Addis Ababa, was neither protected by a natural fortress like Debre Damo, nor by the harshness of the territory as the churches of Tigray, or by the waters of Lake Tana.
Nothing remains of the ancient monastery, destroyed during the course of the Christian-Muslim wars, while the very mediocre architecture of the present church, built in ’61 by the wish of Haile Selassie, makes a poor show of itself. But, without the need to display major artistic wonders, Debre Libanos, because of this also, represents vividly the strength of religious fervor that the spirit of the Ethiopian people has preserved. (L.M.)