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Photo of the Month - exploring the Story behind the Image...

St. Georges Rock-Cut Church

St. Georges Rock-Cut Church

Year: 2011, Month: September

Ethiopia > Welo > Lalibela

Mankind has made some monumental achievements over the centuries. The greatest of these have often been in the form of, well, monuments. The pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal in Agra, the temples of Borobudur and Ankor Wat all spring to mind, as well as the lost city of Petra, and more modern constructions like the Hoover, Aswan, or Three Gorges Dam in China. So it may come as a surprise to some that little Ethiopia, a country which to many is synonymous with war and famine, could have monuments that could be included in this category, but indeed they do. And there are none, perhaps, of greater achievement than the rock-cut churches of Lalibela, in the northern part of that very beautiful and friendly country.

This month's Photo of the Month shows one of them, my personal favourite, the church of Bet Giyorgis. Lonely Planet's Ethiopia guidebook rightly describes it as 'the most mesmerising object in all of Ethiopia'. It was built during the Zagwe dynasty of 1137 to 1270 AD, a period still shrouded in mystery and almost completely devoid of recorded history. No stones were inscribed with the doings of the rulers of this dynasty, no chronicles were written, no coins were minted, and no accounts of the dynasty by foreign travellers have survived. Its not even certain what brought the Zagwe dynasty to its end. It was most likely a combination of infighting within the dynasty and local opposition from the clergy that helped the new leader, Yekuno Amlak to overthrow them, at which time political power shifted away from Lalibela and south to the then province of Shoa.

Back in Lalibela though, something did remain: a most wondrous series of churches, hewn out of the solid rock. Why are they so remarkable? They can be classed as 'monolithic rock structures', but unlike, say, Petra in Jordan or the rock-hewn caves of Barabar External link opens a new Browser window in eastern India, the churches of Lalibela haven't so much been carved out of the solid rock as freed from it. Let me try and explain this a little clearer. Normally, if you want a stone church, or indeed any other stone building, you would lay foundations, then take your blocks of stone and place them on top of each other in rows until you had the form you required. Small children have been doing this for thousands of years, on a smaller scale, of course. Most of our greatest cathedrals have been built using exactly the same method. But the builders of Lalibela, when they decided they needed a church, went about it in a completely different manner.

They found a very large area of rock, not above the ground, but below the surface of it. They then proceeded to excavate from ground level, going down. They removed all the surplus rock to leave behind a church. They removed the rock surrounding the church, and they removed the rock inside the church. They removed the window voids to leave behind windows. They did the same with the doorways. There was no 'building' of the church at all. When they had removed the rock, a church, complete in every decorative detail, remained. This is what is so incredible. That this was done 800 years ago or more, without the aid of modern tools or technology, makes it doubly so.

Who built these churches, and how long did it take? Some scholars have estimated that an active workforce of 40,000 would have been needed, but were these people available, and who paid for them? Some locals claim that the earthly workforce toiled during the hours of daylight, to be replaced by a celestial workforce who worked during the hours of darkness. I guess this would have been a little cheaper for the organisers. The only name that we have in this regard is that of King Lalibela, who was told in a dream to build the rock churches here, and did so. It is lucky that the local stone is a form of red volcanic tuff or tuft, which is fairly soft and easy to work, but even so, the logistics involved are simply incredible, even by today's standards.

There's something else to consider, as well: the skill required of the people involved. If you are building a church in the normal method, block on block, and you make a mistake, its no big problem. You simply remove the faulty row of blocks concerned, and replace them with new ones. But 'building', or should we say 'carving' a church in the Lalibela method leaves no room at all for error. If you chip away too much stone, you can't just add it back again. You only have one chance to get it right. It must be perfect every time. A building like this, both inside and out, is proportionally and visually balanced. If three internal pillars have a raised decorative feature around them, then the fourth pillar must have the same feature at the same place. If you make a mistake and chip it off, it can't be stuck back on. You'd have to re-work the other three pillars to match. If you made a mistake whilst doing that, you'd have to re-work the carving all around once again, and in the meantime, the base rock would get thinner and thinner. Whilst all this is going on, the building has to be structurally sound as well, so it will last well into the future. Then there are possible flaws in the rock to consider, watch out for, and deal with. Its an awe-inspiring thought that someone was prepared to first start and then complete a task with such precise requirements.

Bet Giyorgis was the last of the rock-cut churches to be completed, and undoubtedly the finest. Some 15 metres high, and in the shape of a Greek cross, it lies hidden from distant view, only visible when the pilgrim approaches within a few metres. It can be seen from above, but to access it you must descend along a series of gently sloping pathways, also hacked out of the rock, that bring you down through a tunnel and vestibule to the entrance gateway, a vast and ancient wooden door, studded with nails and made from a single plank of wood. Passing through this gateway, the church stands before you, on a plinth inside the huge void the surrounds it. The only other features are a pool used for baptism, and some small store rooms used by the monks. It is indeed a wonderful sight. Near the gateway, facing the church, are some small caves just above ground level. The traveller may well be shocked to see the feet of a number of mummified human corpses protruding from them. I asked the priest about this, and was told that they were the remains of other pilgrims from long, long ago, who had visited the church and been so overwhelmed by its beauty and sanctity that they had vowed never to leave. They never have.

To finish this article, I'll repeat the story of how the church came to be, told in the Lonely Planet guide book to Ethiopia. You can purchase the book or a pdf download online. The story is as follows:

HOOFPRINTS & SAINTLY REMINDERS - Just as King Lalibela was finishing off his series of churches, he was suddenly paid an unexpected visit. Astride a white horse and decked out in full armour came Ethiopia’s patron saint, George. However, the saint turned out to be severely piqued: not one of the churches had been dedicated to him. Profusely apologetic, Lalibela promised to make amends immediately by building him the most beautiful church of all. Today, the priests of Bet Giyorgis (meaning ‘Place of George’) point out the hoof-prints left behind by the saint’s horse, permanently imprinted in stone on the side of the trench.

If you get the chance, do visit Lalibela, and especially the Church of St George. Its no surprise that many people now call it the Eight Wonder of the World.

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