With its many islands and surrounded by breathtaking mountains, Lake Tana was a natural venue for people searching deep spirituality. Many of the islands of this beautiful lake hosted, probably since the fourth century, some of the oldest Christian sites in Ethiopia. Very little remains of that era. Of the first settlements we have a glimpse in the rectangular structure of churches as Tana Cherkos Estefanos and Dega, rebuilt in the nineteenth century.
The monasteries of Lake Tana were mostly founded in the fourteenth century and later served to secure the treasures of the churches of the region during Christian-Muslim wars. Most of the churches of Lake Tana are circular with a conical roof (the shape of the Ethiopian traditional huts). The larger circle, consisting of columns of wood or stone, is generally open to the outside. Inside, in concentric circles, are the places for the faithful and the sanctuary. Often the walls are decorated with paintings. One of the noblest examples of this architectural style is the church of Kebran Gabriel on the picturesque Kebran Island, at the southern tip of the lake. This church is built around twenty-eight square pillars connected by round arches.
Kebran Gabriel is one of the monasteries founded in the fourteenth century. Today the monks are about seventy, in the past they were five hundred. On smaller islands churches are somehow more humble and rudimentary. Monks live a very modest life. In Kebran, where women are not allowed, the young eat once a day sharing the food in common. Older monks habitually consume the food in their little homes, and often they fast.
Lalibela remains today the apotheosis of Christian worship in Ethiopia. Named after the king who lived there between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the town and its monuments are a testament to faith. At the time of Islamic expansion, it became increasingly difficult to go Jerusalem on a pilgrimage. King Lalibela decided to build an Ethiopian Jerusalem, complete with the Golgotha, the Holy Sepulchre, the river Jordan and even the Sinai. King Lalibela’s dream did not simply translate into an ambitious complex of churches, in a concocted place for devotion. The most unsettling aspects of the system of churches of Lalibela, connected by a maze of passageways and walkways, are their strictly monolithic character and the logic used in building them. Visually and technically striking is the example of the Church of Bet Giorgis, which represents Lalibela more than any other.
Bet Giorgis stands out with its flat roof in the shape of a Greek cross in the rock surface where it has been excavated. The church, in fact, has been “built” from top down with the progressive removal of material. Workers removed approximately 3,500 cubic meters of rock to create space around the church, and about 500 more to create the space for the faithful and celebrants inside. Architecturally, this church represents the highest peak of Aksumite style and workmanship. Even before being a church, Bet Giorgis is a huge sculpture. We have no clue as to the technique used for this enormous task. The monolithic churches of Lalibela have no comparison in the world except in the case of a Hindu temple in Maharashtra.
Coming from every part of Ethiopia, vast masses of pilgrims come to Lalibela not for the artistic value of its churches, but because of its character of Holy City of Ethiopia. Ethiopians are religious people, and their faith is expressed daily in their lives. The beauty of some of their sanctuaries, monasteries, churches, should not be considered central to this expression of belief. Evidence comes from the many undistinguished places of worship that keep attracting people. The experience of faith attached to a place, because of some events of the past, is more important that the artistic beauty found there. A case in point is Debra Libanos, some one hundred kilometres from Addis Ababa. After a bomb attack against General Graziani, in 1937, the occupying Italian forces commited a massacre here. Most monks were killed. Debra Libanos lacks the natural protection of fortresses like Debra Damo, defended by an impenetrable cliff, or the churches of Tigray, built in harsh territory. It is not surrounded by waters like the monasteries on Lake Tana. Debra Libanos is accessible, and so vulnerable. Nothing remains of the monastery destroyed during the Christian-Muslim wars. The modern church, built in 1961 by Haile Selassie, is of mediocre architectural interest. Yet, even without great artistic wonders to show, it is a centre of spirituality where many Ethiopians come to pray, reflect, feel in communion with God. Debra Libanos vividly represents the strength of popular religious fervour of these people.