Friday, April 20, 2007

Medhane Alem

(March 18, 2007: Lalibela, Ethiopia.)

Medhane Alem, the Savior of the World

The first of the rock cut churches of Lalibela that we were to visit was Medhane Alem. We arrived with a hot sun blistering down in the thin mountain air. Around the compound of the churches, a few trees provided some shade. Outside the gates, a cobblestone road winds past into the older part of the town.

One approaches Medhane Alem via stairs cut into the southwest corner of a huge pit. Inside this pit sits perhaps the largest rock cut church in the world, 33.5 m by 23.5 m, and 11 m high, elevated above the floor of the pit on a large platform. 34 large square stone pillars, cut of one piece with the church, form an exterior collonade with a pleasing symmetry. The overhangs are carved with curved blind arches.

The immense size of this church can be seen in relation to our guide, here standing at the southwest entrance to the church.

Visible lines in some of the columns attest to the reconstruction that has been done. Some of the columns and part of the roof had collapsed. The original columns and the roof were carved in one piece out of the red volcanic rock.

Carved into the walls of the pit are some tombs and storage spaces. Some of the empty tombs became temporary housing in the past for pilgrims during festivals or Holy Days.

In a country that gets torrential downpours during the rainy season, handling the runoff of water was given careful consideration. We were shown channels carved into the floor of the pit and openings in the walls which carry water away and down to the "River Jordan".
The organizers of our tour arranged for two "shoe minders". By encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit in this way it is hoped that the constant presence of beggars will be reduced. The two lads were very helpful as well in places where the passage-ways were very steep and steps difficult to climb.
Shoes must always be removed prior to entering Ethiopian churches.

Inside the church, the eye is drawn upwards to the high vaulted ceiling of the central nave. Two aisles run parallel to the nave on both sides, for a total of 5 aisles. The ceiling is supported inside by another 28 pillars, 4 rows of 7 columns, which rise into arches with corbels, the arches of the central nave rising higher to follow the curve of the vaulted ceiling. The interior columns are aligned with the exterior ones and with pilasters on all four interior walls. In each bay thus formed, where there isn't a door, there are windows. The top of each window is also curved with corbels. The bottom half of each window is decorated with an insert of carved stone of many various types of crosses.

As with most Ethiopian churches, the interior is divided into three spaces. The outermost is where the choir sings the hymns or chants. Next comes the space where communion is given. The innermost space, at the east end, is the Holy of Holies and is shut off by curtains. Only priests and deacons are allowed to enter the Holy of Holies. It is there that the tabot or altar tablet is kept. The tabot is a representation of the Ark of the Covenant, or the tablet upon which the law was given to Moses. The original is said to be in a shrine at Axum (more on that later).

We were shown a depression in the stone of one of the columns of the nave. This is where it is said that the original Lalibela cross was found. One of the treasures of this church is the 7 kg gold Lalibela-style cross that is said to be the processional cross of King Lalibela himself. It was stolen in 1996 and sold to a Belgian collector for US$25,000. It was fortunately retrieved from Belgium in 1998 and returned to Ethiopia.

Our shoe minders help us as we exit Medhane Alem.

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