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Posted by on Mar 6, 2010

African Cultural Heritage: Lalibela, Kilwa, Great Zimbabwe, Timbuktu, and Elmina

These are images taken mostly by Dr. Heinz Ruther of the University of Cape Town’s Department of Geomatics currently available here. If you prefer the Flickr slideshow, click here. These images document cultural heritage sites throughout Africa, including Lalibela in Ethiopia, Kilwa Kisiwani in Tanzania, Great Zimbabwe in (not surprisingly) Zimbabwe, Elmina Castle in Ghana, and Timbuktu and Djenne in Mali. Beautiful images and places  that I surely hope to visit at some point in my life. All have rich histories. For more background information on each site, just click on the links above.

My personal favorite is Lalibela, a series of churches carved downwards into the stone so the roofs of the churches are barely visible on the horizon (or not at all visible). What is less known about Ethiopia is its importance for religious settlements and older sects of established religions. For example, there is a traditional Ethiopian Jewish sect known as Beta Israel, many of which have emigrated to Israel in recent years. Also, the rather significant Ethiopian Orthodox Church is a vibrant entity of 40 million (and one of the few pre-colonial Christian churches in Africa).

It is with this Christian aspect that the churches of Lalibela come into play. From David Phillipson’s introductory essay on the significance of Lalibela, I take the following text:

The small town of Lalibela, high in the mountains of northern Ethiopia, is one of the most important pilgrimage places of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It boasts no fewer than 11 of the exceptional rock-hewn churches that are the most remarkable monuments to have survived from medieval Ethiopia. The place takes its present name from the pious King Lalibela, who reigned around A.D. 1200, and to whom creation of all the churches is traditionally attributed. Recent research, however, suggests that the churches were created over a much longer period, and that they demonstrate strong continuity between the civilisations of ancient Aksum and medieval Ethiopia.

There are numerous rock-hewn churches in Ethiopia, notably in the northern highlands, and the tradition has continued into recent times. The Lalibela examples are exceptional, both because of the sophistication of their design and craftsmanship, and because the proximity of several examples permits the establishment of a sequence. They are carved inside and out from soft volcanic rock and their architecture is extremely diverse: some stand as isolated blocks in deep pits, while others have been cut into the face of a cliff.

The huge task represented by the cutting of these churches and their associated trenches, passages, and tunnels during the reign of a single king is explained by the church as the work of angels who worked so fast that all the churches are said to have been completed within King Lalibela’s quarter-century rule. New research offers a different explanation and it can now be argued that the oldest of the rock-hewn features at Lalibela may date to the seventh or eighth centuries—about 500 years earlier than the traditional dating. These first monuments were not originally churches, although they were subsequently extended in a different architectural style and converted to ecclesiastical use. Later, perhaps around the 10th or 11th century, the finest and most sophisticated churches were added, carved as three- or five-aisle basilicas and retaining many architectural features that may be traced back to ancient Aksum, which had flourished some 400–800 years previously.

The last phase of Lalibela’s development that may be dated to the reign of the king whose name the place now bears. The church complex was extended and elaborated during King Lalibela’s quarter-century rule. Several of the features attributed to this last phase bear names such as the Tomb of Adam or the Church of Golgotha, which mirror those of places visited by pilgrims to Jerusalem and its environs. This naming has extended to natural features: the seasonal river that flows though the site is known as Yordanos (Jordan) and a nearby hill is called Debra Zeit (Mount of Olives). It seems that it was King Lalibela who gave the place its present complexity and form in an effort to make it a substitute for Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage. It may be significant that, early in King Lalibela’s reign, the Muslim Salah-ad-Din (Saladin) had captured Jerusalem, and for this reason Ethiopians may have felt disinclined to make the traditional pilgrimage to the Palestinian Holy Land.

Today, a cloth-draped feature in the Church of Golgotha is pointed out as the Tomb of King Lalibela. It is not known whether this attribution is original or whether pilgrimage to this tomb was a later development. Be that as it may, Lalibela remains to this day a major Ethiopian pilgrimage centre, and an increasingly popular tourist destination.

If you love history, how much better does it get than that? Pilgrimages, rock-hewn churches, Saladin, the Holy Land, and King Lalibela. It makes for a great story and even greater history. And lets not forget that as any Ethiopian Orthodox Christian will tell you, the Ark of the Covenant is contained in the church below in Ethiopia. Click on the image to go to the Wikipedia article.

The Chapel of the Tablet at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum allegedly houses the original Ark of the Covenant.

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