Lallibela, Ethiopia

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Lallibela, Ethiopia
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   Sallie Oliver 4/26/18 Lalibela’s Creative Architecture in Ethiopia  During the late 12th century an emperor, Gabrel Lalibela, created the now world famous architectural project, the Churches of Lalibela, in Roha as a New Jerusalem. While this might be one truth, it is not the total story of insurmountable creative efforts involved when building the rock-hewn architectural site. My research asks, what might the various stories of Lalibela be? How will these stories, presented as five topics of discourse, allow us to see the power of the disciplined human hand? The Lalibela churches were probably built during more than one Ethiopian dynasty from the 7 th  through 13 th  centuries, as scientific research claims. New stratigraphic evidence suggests the 11 churches were part of a long-lived ritual center. What’ s important is remembering when these stories contribute as variables to a holistic discourse into better seeing a multi-layered architectural site. This Lalibela research will identify five distinct perspectives, not as a Westernized puzzle, rather as a constellated route to highlight this site as with plural and living nature. The five stories will have focus in the following: legend, built landscape, hybrid history, spiritual purpose and performance. While this research is broad, it is not intended as an in-depth comprehensive view, rather as an introductory glance when various stories come together within the same place of Ethiopia’s Lalibela site. Ethiopia’s geographical location in the Horn of Africa articulates much of its history as a celebrated international trade location and in part icular the nation’s  access to the Red and  Arabian Seas spurs a degree of cultural exchange with near and far neighboring lands. During ancient centuries, and still today, the landscape has permitted fairly consistent interaction with Indian, Coptic, and Roman Empires. Throughout populations, spirituality will root itself in religious doctrines and so it is important to see how these spiritual ideals might inhabit architecture as population’s way to navigate priorities.  When the Lalibela churches were built, Christianity had already lived with Ethiopian history since King Ezana declared it as the official religion during his 4 th  century reign. Today, these churches are a UNESCO site and known for incorporating an idealized hybrid between many social principles. People claim that mapping the church’s constructive timelines is a way to bridge cultural intersectionality. While many theories  persist regarding the srcins of the buildings, the most famous is the legend of King Lalibela. During the late 12 th  century oral history states that King Lalibela of the Zagwe Dynasty was chosen as a leader in a unique way. Following his birth, angels descended in the form of  bees and gathered around him. Rather than stinging Lalibela, the bees created a protective shield and thus he was believed to possess divine nature and character. Years later, he traveled to the city of Jerusalem and had a dream to re-build a new Jerusalem in the Lasta Mountains of Roha, now called Lalibela. What is seen now are 11 monolithic rock-hewn Churches. It is claimed that during the daylight workers cut in to the rock while angels progressed the work further at night time and so all the churches were built within a period of 20 years. Interestingly, people have also claimed these churches were built by aliens, Knights of Templars, or Coptic slaves. That is false. Nevertheless, to understand the role of Christian religion in Ethiopia it is also important to note the legendary power of the Solomonic Dynasty. What was so important to Lalibela in regards to placing these churches in Ethiopia and not elsewhere? The Solomonic dynasty of  Ethiopia introduces another legend regarding the role of the Queen of Sheba, Makeda, and her interaction with Jerusalem. It is well-known by many Ethiopians that the Queen of Sheba met with King Solomon in Israel and had a child Menelick I. She moved back to Ethiopia where she raised Menelick I. Later her son visited his father, King Solomon, and was entrusted to carry home the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia where today it is hidden from view. The Ark of the Covenant is famed as from the Old Testament when Biblical literature states that Moses wrote the 10 commandments from God as how to live peacefully. Now, every church in Ethiopia celebrates this history with a replica version for worshippers to connect with. Thus Ethiopians have significant interest in protecting their Solomonic dynasty and it is claimed that all the emperors until this 20 th  century were direct descendants from King Solomon. This is a unique feature of a country in having quite a consistent theme. As a built landscape, this site is notable because it was not constructed, rather this place was excavated by human efforts into the natural rock landscape and thus created a new built landscape. Significantly, the churches were placed in the Lasta mountains because it provided a safe plateau where water was accessible. The role of water in religious rituals is extremely important especially when political leaders control the water supplies. This distinction between religion and politics in Ethiopia during Lalibela’s reign was not such a wide gap as it is in Western culture. For this purpose, Abba Libanos, a hydro-engineer, was brought in to create a water system of distribution still intact today. To create an efficient supply of water distribution, he directed a canyon entrenched in the middle of the site known as the River Jordan. Many of the churches have extensive drain systems and pools for ritual activity in the courtyard. To simplify this water supply as it was a “spring and rain water system” was part of a “brilliantly defined   political religious economy” (Jarzombek, p. 81). This shows the level of sophistication employed in the churches and serves as evidence they were meant as a long-lasting site. When learning more about Lalibela, hybrid histories must be considered how the churches share various ideologies because the chronology of creation occurs outside a singular site of construction. For example, in  Built by Angels?    Neil Finneran notes “I would argue that any buildings archaeology approach to these churches ought to take in to account other long term-  processes, social and cultural, as played out in this architectural space.” (Finneran , p. 422). Many of the churches have undergone extensive interior and exterior renovations in order to stabilize the ancient structure as well as to re-paint the decorative frescoes. This makes dating chronology difficult because the srcinal material of rock existed long before the churches and so scientists have attempted many methods of inquiry from 3D laser scanning to liturgical sources to create a comprehensive narrative. At best, these studies are inconclusive yet a compelling argument is made by Fauvelle-Aymar suggesting “ not all necessarily have been initially conceived as churches, they belong to a long period of time between the seventh/eighth and early twelfth century. ” (Fauvelle -Aymar, p. 1148) Parts of architectural features reference Aksumite architectural design. The last two perspectives include the Lalibela site as both embracing a spiritual purpose and place of local and global performance. In 1978 UNESCO identified Lalibela amongst of handful of ancient sites to be included as a World Heritage monument and so this becomes a narrative in of itself. UNESCO qualifies this Ethiopian place as having outstanding universal value because each of the churches are an artistic achievement with a variety of size and stylistic  execution. That is how the performance of Lalibela today will be concerned with architectural  preservation and consequentially mapping of imagined boundaries. No distinct borders have yet  been defined and not much re-enforcement exists in terms of policy protection. Thus, how are the locals incorporated in to the bigger picture? They’re not really. Concern s arise when many homes are displaced  because of “waste” management. The spiritual purpose of the church then  becomes somewhat of a church-museum in a way requiring the locals to balance schedules of spiritual practice with “ responsible ”  tourism. With this creative project I remember on the one hand how part of my family is from Israel and practices Orthodox Judaism, and on the other hand another part of my family practice Christianity in the American South. The Lalibela churches drew an interest as a highly creative ecclesiastical architecture site where various spiritualties interact simultaneously. I asked a family member to help create a project which might represent how multiple stories are available across generations. While today the Lalibela Churches symbolize human ingenuity as well as cultural, political and religious narratives, this project is inspired by Lalibela where imaginative memory meets plural narratives. What is shown is a box with drawers at all sides symbolizing how stories are held in memory until necessary. Having drawers at all four sides represents how narratives are told with many angles. While the Lalibela Churches are a place of worship, this re-interprets that idea of worship and transforms the drawers as sites of living memories. While the viewer is invited to open the drawers, not all of the drawers automatically open and this shows how parts of stories will never be fully unlocked. The inaccessible drawers also represent how remote truths reside already within the viewer and so the drawers themselves become pointless in a way. As all the drawers have the same exterior then the viewer’s curiosity  incites a persistence
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