Thursday, May 24, 2007

Beta Giyorgis

(March 18, 2007: Lalibela, Ethiopia.)
Perhaps the most photographed and most famous of the rock cut churches of Lalibela, Beta Giyorgis (various spellings are found), lies apart from the other churches, somewhat southwest of the northern group. To reach it, we passed the old village of Lalibela. Through the assistance of Unesco, the old village is being preserved and people have the opportunity to resettle in newer homes away from the historical site.

In the photo above, handwoven scarfs and shawls of very good quality are being offered for sale. For those in our group who purchased one, they were to come in handy on some very dusty days of trekking ahead.

Beta Giyorgis is carved into a large sloping rock platform of the same red volcanic rock found throughout the whole site in Lalibela. The two crosses on the roof, one inside the other, follow the overall shape of the church.

The pit it sits in is 12 m deep. In the walls of the pit surrounding the church are several openings that lead to hermits' dwellings, ossuaries, and storage chambers. Dedicated by the Holy King Lalibela to St. George (the slayer of the dragon), it is said that the hoof-prints of the saint's white horse are to be found imprinted forever in the stone on the side of the trench.

One distinct portion of the pit was not carved away from the whole. A river of stone there, if I remember correctly, symbolizes the River of Life and leads the eye upward to an olive tree which is symbolic of the Mount of Olives.

One can descend into the pit and thereby the church via a passage of steps cut into the wall on the downward slope of the rock platform. This is perhaps the best preserved of all the churches and unique in its cross shape. It is 12 by 12 m and sits on a triple-stepped plinth.

One ogilvie shaped window with ribbed capitals is found high up on each of the twelve outer walls. Remembering that this was carved out of solid stone, it is impressive to note the delicate carved decorations above each window had to be considered in advance, not added as an afterthought!

The three doorways on the west facade have the Axumite-style square monkey-heads at the corners in the same style found on many of the windows and doorways of the other churches. On the lower walls that do not have doorways, blind windows which do not open to let light into the interior, have the same monkey-heads at the corners.
It is the central of the three doorways which accesses the entrance staircase.
The interior again is divided into the three sections, with the easternmost sanctuary having a domed ceiling on which is a carved cross-pattée. The ceilings in the other arms of the church are flat and have plain crosses carved on them. The ceiling of the crossing is higher, also flat, and defined by four arches with bracket capitals.
One of the treasures we were shown inside Beta Giyorgis is an olive-wood box said to have been carved by King Lalibela in which he used to store his tools.

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