The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Wednesday 27th October 2004

Lalibela, Ethiopia's Ancient Rock Cut Churches

Given by - Professor David Phillipson

Reviewed by - Tony Diggle

On Wednesday, October 27, 2004, a joint meeting of the British Institute in Eastern Africa and the Anglo-Ethiopian Society was held at the British Academy on the subject of Lalibela - Ethiopia's Ancient Rock-Cut Churches. The Lalibela churches are of enormous cultural importance, and many challenges are now faced by those responsible for their preservation.

The keynote address of the evening, however, concerned their age and origins: yet another aspect of these churches, or 'hypogea' (underground places) as they should correctly be named, as they were carved not built. The address was given by Professor David Phillipson of Cambridge University.

Professor Phillipson began by noting that Ethiopia was so often thought of in terms of famine, war and poverty. Yet “Ethiopia had a unique past, important not only for the country's own citizens but for all people's understanding of their place in the world.” He recounted the popular tradition that King Lalibela received a vision telling him to build a New Jerusalem which would last for ever, and ordered the building of the churches in the 13th century, but added that little research had previously been done to confirm whether this was true. Recent research had pushed the date of the earliest constructions back to the 7th century. There was evidence of a lack of co-ordination over the site as a whole. There was a discrepancy between the plans of Beta Medhane Alem and the reality, for example. Looking at the alignment of skills and tools yielded further clues.

Professor Phillipson's paper will be published in full in due course, but his overall conclusion was that Lalibela had evolved through three principal phases “through which progression could tentatively be recognised”:

Phase A: Merqorios; Gabriel-Raphael; Danaghel; Bethlehem
These churches could be as old as the seventh and eighth centuries, perhaps belonging to a period of political disruption and fragmentation initiated by the decline of Aksum. They may not have been built initially as churches, and Aksumite-style features are rare, if present, at all.

Phase B: Medhane-Alem; Maryam; Emmanuel; Meskel; Giorgis
These churches are firmly Christian and their “largely basilican architecture owes much to Aksumite inspiration with clear indications of a desire to emphasise Lalibela's status as a successor to Aksum. A date in the tenth or eleventh century would fit this scenario.”

Phase C: Mikael; Golgotha; Abba Libanos
“Lalibela Phase C saw the production of those hypogea which are specifically linked by tradition to King Lalibela himself... It also takes in locations which are central to the view of Lalibela replicating the topography of the Holy Land.” *

The role of foreigners in the construction appeared to have been greatly exaggerated. His final point came back to today, however: the churches were under threat from over-usage. (This will be taken up again below.)

Then followed three short presentations on the importance of Lalibela to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, tourism and Ethiopia today.

Gerald Gotzen expanded enthusiastically on the importance of Lalibela to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Going into more detail on the legend of Lalibela, he referred to Christ appearing on the pillar near to where King Lalibela was praying. The “One Pillar” associated with Beta Maryam represented the importance of unity in the EOC. No tourists were allowed into the Debra Sinai-Golgotha-Selassie Chapel complex (described elsewhere as Lalibela's most secret and holiest place). Mr Gotzen emphasised the contribution of Haile Selassie's daughter who had built the Seven Olives Hotel (once managed by Mr Gotzen) and given all profits to the churches. Lalibela was confirmed as a place of pilgrimage, particularly at Timkat, and 20-30,000 pilgrims came every year.

Richard Snailham referred to Lalibela as a central point on the historic route, and said that various steps had been taken to enable tourists to gain a better appreciation of the churches. There were no longer beggars and lepers on the site, and a substantial new road had improved access.

The most important presentation came from the Ethiopian Ambassador, His Excellency Fisseha Adugna, who set Lalibela in the context of present-day Ethiopia as a whole. Pointing out that the Ethiopian calendar meant that Ethiopia's new millennium wouldn't start for another three years, he looked ahead at the expected development of Ethiopia in the short term. Progress was being recorded in education, agriculture and water management. Food security was expected to be achieved in four to five years: there would never be a need for another “Band-Aid”. The watchwords of Ethiopia's future development were investment, tourism and trade. Mr Adugna concluded by reminding the audience of Lalibela's spiritual significance.

Taken collectively then, the presentations gave a “state of the art” review of the cultural importance of Lalibela, and explored the opportunity to explain this to the wider world through tourism to the benefit of an increasingly developed Ethiopia.

It was not surprising that questions centred round the number of tourists coming to Lalibela and the management of the site. If it was necessary to encourage tourists, they needed to be managed, and a key factor was that the churches were still in use. Many “tourists” were Lalibelans, and broader development had broken down through a lack of coordination between the airline industry and local hotels.

On the other hand those that were coming were gradually destroying walkways, stairways and plinths, and often wore inappropriate clothing and showed little respect regarding the taking of photographs. Medhane Alem and Beta Emmanuel were actually at risk from collapse.

There needed to be better liaison between archaeologists and all the different professionals involved in the site. The Ethiopian Antiquities Department was responsible for weather-proofing but help was needed from the European Commission (EC) and UNESCO. It was also suggested that the Africa Commission pay more attention to culture.

As far as solutions were concerned, firm action to date was limited to the operational management of the site. There was now a plan for day-to-day maintenance, and a letter was going to be sent to the EC and UNESCO asking them to intervene. Clearly the maintenance of the site is of the greatest importance, and help from the international community in this regard to be warmly welcomed. As far as the continued opening up of the site is concerned, to the present writer, encouragement for tourism from an educational perspective should be the preferred route. And indeed the final thought of the evening was for the people living around Lalibela, and the effect of continuing tourism on them.


The evening was subsequently given added poignancy by an article in The Sunday Times on December 12 (page 3) entitled “Ethiopia hits at film by Buerk”, in which H.E. Fisseha Adugna attacked a BBC documentary for misleading the public into thinking that little had changed in his country since the catastrophic famine of 20 years ago. He claimed that this had led to western tourists cancelling trips there.

Ethiopia's progress should be noted. Responsible tourism will help this.

* Quotations are from “Cambridge Professor Challenges Lalibela Chronology”, Ethiopian Embassy Press Release, 28 October, 2004.

First Published in News File Spring 2005

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