Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Eastern Churches

(March 19, 2007: Lalibela.)

Beta Qedus Gabrae'el Rufa'el:

The winding approach from the north, to the church dedicated to the archangels Gabriel and Raphael, is up an incline after crossing the River Yordanos, with the village on the east side. There is a large stone cross in the River Yordanos valley which marks the junction of tunnels that lead to Beta Qedus Gabrae'el Rufa'el and Beta Giorgis. Crossing another bridge over a rock-cut trench, the impressive facade of Beta Qedus Gabrae'el Rufa'el comes into view.


I'm sure I've muddled this up because I can't find references to it anywhere else. However, our guide said that at one time, the only access for the devout to this church was by climbing up the wall on the right hand side, above. The legend is that only the holy could successfully make the climb. And, if one fell off, what happened? Well, they would be going to "the other place"!

Now, a right turn takes us up to a covered gallery, the roof supported by elegant pillars. This gallery faces the northwest facade of the church across a trench 15m deep. One has to cross this trench on a third wooden bridge to reach the entrance to the church.

The church sits on a plinth excavated on three sides right down to the bottom of that 15m trench.

The facade, so elegant and exotic to me in the afternoon sunshine, has an ogee arcade with corbels formed by columns which are attached from top to bottom. The blind niches have doors in the third (above) and the sixth, with ogival windows on the wall of each of the remaining. This east doorway, the main entrance, is in Axumite style, with the square monkey heads in each corner. The west doorway opening out onto a high stone terrace is not visible in my photos and is shaped like the ogee arch and corbels of the arcade. The repetition of the ogee arch and corbels in the windows is quite pleasing to me.
I believe the stone pillars that form the railing of the bridge and the facing gallery were added during some reconstruction work and are not original. However, I think they were very thoughtfully done, and add to the overall design.


It is thought that this building was not originally a church because it has an irregular plan, with chapels that do not follow the conventional orientation of churches in Ethiopia. It might have been part of the royal palace.

From the western chapel doorway, which opens out onto a rock terrace, one has a view of the entrance gallery and bridge across the trench to the main steps and east doorway.

Passing back through the entrance gallery opposite the church, a tunnel leads into a rock chamber with a window which overlooks the east end of Beta Gabre'el. This room has this massive iron-studded door. Continuing down beyond this doorway are passages that lead to Faras Bet.
Faras Bet:

Faras Bet, means Horse House, and the legend is that this was Lalibela's stable. Or it may have been a beta lahm, (also called Arogi Bethlehem ) for baking the eucharistic bread. The upper openings would have allowed the smoke to escape.
Beta Marqorewos:

From Faras Bet, we took a long curving tunnel through several chambers, emerging at Beta Marqorewos. Also perhaps not originally a church, Beta Marqorewos is remarkable for eighteen of twenty massive stone columns that still survive. Although parts of Beta Marqorewos have collapsed, on one of the columns still visible are paintings of crowned figures wearing what might be royal robes.



Inside Beta Merqorewos, there is also a beautiful fresco done on fabric which is believed to date from the 16th century, added perhaps after it was converted into a church. Plastered onto the wall with a mixture of straw, ox blood and mud, it is thought to depict the three wise men.

Here, a phonolith (stone 'bell') suspended on a wall, has quite a clear ringing tone when struck. Naturally, some of us had to test this out for ourselves, to the amusement of a watching priest.
Sometimes, although the group of mostly English travelers in our group were ....well,....English, I think our guide found us a bit shocking.
At one point, he tried to patiently explain to us uncouth foreigners that women's shoulders should be covered in the churches, not, here he pointed to G.'s bare shoulders, dressed in their underwear. "Wha'??" she exclaimed in her broad accent. "I'm no' in me underweah!"
What ensued was much hilarity as our guide tried to find the word he had meant to say, while the rest of the group had a laugh at G.'s expense, with G. laughing the most. Of course, G. did cover her shoulders in the churches and this conversation took place earlier in the day, on the trek up the mountain to Ashetam Maryam, I think.
The group didn't seem to have much trouble understanding each other even though there was much ribbing of the different accents from various parts of England, Australia and Zimbabwe. Being the only Canadian, of course, I didn't have an accent (I did not!) and felt like I was often a beat or two behind the conversations at first. By the end of the trip, however, it was all too easy to start adopting G.'s lilting intonation, with the half swallowed syllables: "Wha' djew think? Shall 'e 'ave 'nathah beer? You 'kay, then?"

Bet Amanu'el:

One of the most magnificent of the monolithic rock cut churches of Lalibela, Bet Amanu'el, above, is of a grand Axumite style, from the doorways, to the windows and inside, the Axumite-style double frieze decorating the nave.
Isolated in a rock cut pit of its own, Bet Amanu'el stands on a plinth of three steps, widening by the doorways to four steps. Into the walls of the courtyard, little holes have been cut into the stone to attract the sacred bees.

We descended from the courtyard of Bet Amanu'el via a staircase, a tall and narrow tunnel, and more stairs to Bet Abba Libanos.


It is five o'clock. We are gently being urged to finish our tour so that we will get out of the way of the afternoon services of Lent. Already the faithful are arriving, the women covering their heads with the light cotton natala, the men with the shammas or gabi draped around their shoulders. In his hand, the man ascending the stairs is carrying a bundle of waxy tapers to use like candles.

Abba Libanos is unique because it is three-quarters cut, that is, freed from the rock on all sides, but attached by the roof to overhead rocks. The legend is that Lalibela's wife, Meskel Kebra, constructed this church in a single night, assisted of course, by angels.

Nearby, it was pointed out that there is a monastery-village where monks and nuns live in tiny caves 4m by 3m hewn out of rock.

By now, most of us were ready to contemplate hot showers, a meal and some fun out on the town, so visiting the monastery seemed a little incongruent anyhow.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Larry said...

I've been enjoying your Ethiopian accounts and photos, Kati! That must have been quite an experience.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Kati said...

It was incredible and so unlike other places in the world to which I have traveled, I'm afraid Ethiopia is not finished with me!

12:14 PM  
Blogger Hillside Garden said...

Very nice impressions, Kati. It is like a walk trough the time.

Sigrun

11:47 PM  

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