Rock-Cut Stratigraphy: Sequencing the Lalibela Churches

By Fauvelle-Aymar, Francois-Xavier; Bruxelles, Laurent et al. | Antiquity, December 2010 | Go to article overview
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Rock-Cut Stratigraphy: Sequencing the Lalibela Churches

Fauvelle-Aymar, Francois-Xavier, Bruxelles, Laurent, Mensan, Romain, Bosc-Tiesse, Claire, Derat, Marie-Laure, Fritsch, Emmanuel, Antiquity



The site of Lalibela on the northern plateau of Ethiopia has gained worldwide fame as a historical riddle and a tourist attraction. This complex of a dozen rock-hewn churches (Figures 1 & 2) was occasionally mentioned (under the names of Warwar or Dabra goha) in Ethiopian sources written in geez (Bosc-Tiesse 2009; Derat 2009). But these sources point to legendary origins and provide little information useful to the historian or archaeologist.



The site is named for King Lalibela (d. after 1225) of the Zagwe dynasty (c. eleventh to thirteenth centuries), to whom later written sources (from the fifteenth century) ascribe the foundation often churches (Derat 2006). Little is known about King Lalibela, although one of the rare relevant contemporary documents suggests that one church--Medhane Alem--was cut from the rock during his reign (EMML 6907, fol. 208v). As for the rest of the site, there is no compelling evidence confirming that it was really built in the thirteenth century.

Francisco Alvares (a member of a Portuguese embassy to Ethiopian King Lebna Dengel) visited Lalibela in the early sixteenth century (Alvares 1540 [1943]), providing an early record of the organisation, topography and state of preservation of the site. But it is not until the Italian occupation, and again from the 1960s onwards, that the site, now more easily reachable from the capital Addis Ababa, attracted the attention of amateurs, scholars in architecture (Monti della Corte 1940; Bianchi Barriviera 1963, 1966) and art history (Lepage 1997; Gervers 2003a), liturgists (Fritsch 2008) and archaeologists (Phillipson 2009). A programme of preservation and tourism management was also implemented under the aegis of UNESCO, the World Monuments Fund, and the Ethiopian authorities (the site of Lalibela was placed on the World Heritage list in 1978).

Interest has intensified in the last decade or so, mainly devoted to the iconography on the walls of the churches (Lepage 1999, 2006), the typology of the monuments' architecture (e.g. Lepage 1997; Gervers 2003a; Phillipson 2006) and its liturgical functions (Fritsch & Gervers 2007; Fritsch 2008). But comprehensive archaeological investigation of Lalibela has been inhibited by its obvious complexity, the reluctance of the clergy to allow scholars to generate a corpus of knowledge independent from the religious narrative, and the general persuasion that the nature of the site precludes the recovery of any stratigraphic information. Hence it seemed that the exploration of Lalibela had come to an impasse.

The work reported here, which formed part of a multi-disciplinary project, was aimed at providing a sequence of the site using archaeological methods independent of the art historical evidence, as advocated by Gervers (2003a & b) and Phillipson (2009: 123-81). Since the creation of one church-builder was removed by the chisel of the next (Gervers 2003a: 28), the stratigraphy is hard to read, but it is nonetheless present in the order of cutting, in the dumping of the rock pieces and in subsequent sedimentation. Our investigation did not require entry to the churches (the main concern of the ecclesiastic authorities), but focused on the geological formation of the area, and the way it had been quarried.

The Lalibela complex is traditionally divided into three groups of churches (Figure 2). The first group, located in the northern part of the site, includes five monuments (listed here in the order in which they are usually visited): Medhane Alem, Maryam, Denagel, Masqal and the complex of Debre Sina/Golgota/Sellasse (which comprises three churches). This Northern Group is separated from the Eastern Group by a seasonal stream, the Jordan (Yordanos), which runs in a deep gully that collects water from the entire massif. This gully shows evidence that it is partly man-made.

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Rock-Cut Stratigraphy: Sequencing the Lalibela Churches


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