The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Leseribar Baligziabiher Church

Author - John Mellors


Front facade of the church, November 2009.
Photo © John Mellors

This large rock cut church is situated in the Simien highlands at 12.9386° N, 38.1465° E at an altitude of about 2200 metres, 9 km south east of the nearest town, Mekhane Berhan. The church appears to have been carved into an outcrop of the same pink volcanic tuff as the churches in Lalibela but parts are rough and unfinished. The local tradition is that the builders found problems and moved on to construct the complex at Lalibela, about 140 kilometres to the south-east.

The first of the five monkey-headed windows. Note carvings of moon and crosses and recent extensive cracking.
Photo © John Mellors

The external facade comprises five, 2 metre wide, rectangular openings carved through the rock face, leaving four, 1 metre wide, supporting pillars, some with crosses carved in relief. Recently stone walls have been built to fill the openings and access to the church is now via a wooden door in the second opening. This door leads to an ambulatory which runs the full width of the front of the church and round to the centre of the west side. Five monkey-headed windows and two doors are cut through the south wall of the main church. A third, much smaller, doorway is cut into the centre of the west wall.

The church comprises three aisles of five bays, and has eight free standing pillars. Only two of the bays are now accessible to the congregation, the rest having been walled off for use by the priests. The pillars are about 3 metres tall but have very deep arches above which lift the basic ceiling height to near 5 metres. Each bay then has a domed roof. The height of the dome varies but in some cases the height from the floor must be over 6 metres. A rough plan of the church is given below.

View looking east along the first aisle inside the church. Note the low main entrance to the church on the right, the widow opening above the entrance, the recent stone dividing wall and the decorated dome above the entrance.
Photo © John Mellors

The overall size of the church should be reasonably accurate but it was not possible to enter the east section of the church and there may be additional rooms that are not shown on the plan. The angle of the west section of the ambulatory is only approximate. Most of the domes in the first aisle of the church are decorated. The first bay has a simple circular design, the third a design made up of squares, the fourth a lantern ceiling design. The carving of the dome in the second bay is the most interesting, It has a series of five arches to the east, three monkey-headed openings to the north, two to the south and a design of square blocks to the west. The size of this dome can be seen in the photograph of the view looking east along the first aisle.

Little study seems to have been made of this church and it sees few visitors. Unfortunately its condition has started to deteriorate recently. Large cracks have appeared in the walls and pillars, water is seeping into the church during the rainy season and there have been some small rock falls and movement. The congregation have cut drainage ditches into the soil above the church but apparently without much effect. They would welcome any help to waterproof and stabilise their church.

Plan of Church
All doorways are shown in the plan. The position of one monkey-headed window is shown in the section below. There are five such windows, one for each bay. There is also one plain window in the west wall of the first bay. Measurements were made using a tape measure.
Section A - A'
Carving above west door Circular carving in dome of first bay
Carving in dome of third bay Lantern ceiling carving in dome of fourth bay
Carving in dome of second bay with a series of five arches to the east, three monkey-headed openings to the north, two to the south and a design of square blocks to the west

Many more photographs of the church can be found on a dedicated website.

First Published in News File Summer 2010

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