The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - Lalibela: Wonder of Ethiopia - The Monolithic Churches and their Treasures

Jacques Mercier and Claude Lepage

Reviewer - John Mellors


Lalibela is famous for its extraordinary group of monolithic rock-cut churches - but when were they constructed and who designed and built them? Oral tradition attributes the building of the churches to King Lalibela at the end of the twelfth century, but is there any real evidence for this? David Buxton, and later Michael Gervers, thought that some of the work must have extended in to the fourteenth century from the different styles of decoration. Recently David Phillipson has suggested, based largely on his interpretation of the archaeological evidence, that the site was built in three phases with the earliest phase possibly dating from the seventh to eighth century. Neither Claude Lepage or Jacques Mercier agree with these theories. They believe that the site was planned and excavated during the time of King Lalibela, although the function of many of the buildings has changed over the years.

The authors make a careful analysis of the evidence available in an attempt to give a history of the construction and use of the site. They present a detailed account of the textual evidence about King Lalibela and the churches. Most of the texts have been published before but the significance of some of them has not necessarily been recognised. The importance of the connections between Lalibela and the monastery of Debre Libanos of Ham, now in Eritrea, are highlighted in the book. One of two deeds of King Lalibela held at Debre Libanos is a copy of land grant to the house of The Cross and the house of Mary, and this has been recognised by the authors as being a grant to churches in the Lalibela complex. A new reading of the year of the deed has been proposed (the date written on the copy has long been recognised as being anomalous), and they now interpret the document as marking the foundation of the Lalibela churches in 1204. Texts relating to the appointment, and subsequent dismissal, of the metropolitan Mikael during the reign of King Lalibela give some of the earliest textual descriptions of the site and its uses.

Following a description of the three groups of churches at Lalibela a more detailed survey of the designs of the individual churches is given together with a comparison with previous building designs used in Ethiopia. The many architectural and artistic innovations found at Lalibela are listed and links between the designs of the churches highlighted to reach the conclusion that all of the buildings were made by the same craftsmen in a relatively short period of time. The mural paintings in the church of Mary, the sculptures of human figures at Mary, Golgotha and Trinity, the many wooden arks and the liturgical crosses are described in great detail and all shown to be designs that were consistent with a thirteenth century date for the church complex.

The funerary complex of Golgotha, thought by many to be a later addition, is described by the authors as being the heart of King Lalibela's project and possible reasons for the layout of this complex are proposed. Evidence showing the royal identity of the patron of the church of Mary is presented and the influence of the Gospel of John on the decoration of the church proposed.

The church of Gabriel, which has long been recognised as originally being a fortified palace, is put forward as being built by the king for the metropolitan, Mikael, with the church of Mercurius originally being the administrative complex.

The book goes on to describe some of the treasures preserved in the churches that were produced after the death of King Lalibela. It concludes with a look at how Lalibela is used today.

This is not a guide book to the churches of Lalibela and anyone expecting this may be disappointed at first. Instead, it is a book that tries to prove that the bulk of the Lalibela complex was designed and constructed during the time of King Lalibela. The authors carefully analyse all of the evidence available and have not been afraid to put forward new theories on the reasons for the design of the complex and the original uses for the buildings.

I didn't find all of the arguments used by the authors entirely convincing, for instance whether a picture in the church of Mary actually depicts the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem rather than the flight to Egypt, and spotted a few minor mistakes in the text. An overall plan of the complete site would have been useful to include - but these are minor quibbles.

The book is a fascinating read and a must for anyone interested in the history of Lalibela. The text is supplemented by extensive footnotes at the end of each chapter and there is an excellent bibliography included. The photographs are magnificent, the size of the book allowing them to be used to full advantage, and the quality of the publication is very high.

Lalibela: Wonder of Ethiopia book cover

Lalibela: Wonder of Ethiopia: The Monolithic Churches and their Treasures
Jacques Mercier and Claude Lepage
Ethiopian Heritage Fund: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2012
ISBN 9781907372193
Hardback 344 pages; 300 x 240mm
numerous colour and b&w illustrations
Price £40.00

First Published in News File Winter 2012

Opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of the Society.
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