A Canadian university professor has discovered that the ancient practice of carving Christian churches from solid rock, a skill thought lost for half a millennium, is still alive in Ethiopia…but only just.
While in Ethiopia for the first time last summer, I saw four of the 11 famed rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. It’s perhaps the best-known of Ethiopia’s nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the most of any country in Africa.
The experience of seeing and entering those incredible structures blew me away. But I’ve just learned something so exciting, it makes me want to head back immediately to Addis Ababa.
The men who carved out the 11 churches under the orders of King Lalibela, as part of his plan to create “a new Jerusalem” for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, left no written record of how they did it. This left the way open for certain Euroskeptics to speculate that they must have help from Europeans to create these churches, surely being too unskilled and ignorant to have created them on their own.
That view has been dismissed by just about everyone, but there was little tangible evidence in the West to drive a wooden stake through this racially motivated skepticism once and for all.
A certain Canadian history professor, Michael Gervers of the University of Toronto, was commissioned four years ago by a private foundation to see if he could find Ethiopians still practicing the ancient art of hewing churches from solid rock.
He also found another 20 rock-hewn churches in Ethiopia, all of them carved out in modern times.
He talked about what he found in this Canadian Press interview.
The practice lives among a scattered handful of Ethiopian orthodox priests and believers.
Until now, the carving of the rock-hewn churches was viewed by the outside world as a mystery, created by methods lost to Time. Now, we know — the techniques used to form these incredible houses of worship are still with us.
The question is, for how much longer? Gervers fears the knowledge of these techniques could be lost forever, in part because that knowledge is held by so few Ethiopians.
Having found that they and their skills still exist, Professor Gervers now has a new mission — to help preserve this precious culture heritage before it’s lost.
After 900 years, the original rock churches of Lalibela remain and still in use by worshippers and pilgrims, probably even as you’re reading this. But these are no longer priceless historic relics of a living religion and a lost art. The tradition of hewing these sanctuaries from stone lives, albeit barely, in Ethiopia. And that tradition is just as much a priceless heritage as the churches themselves.
Perhaps one day, besides marveling at those original churches, visitors will have a chance to meet the Ethiopians carrying this tradition forward into the 21st century.