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Lālibala EthnologyLegends of Site

Lālibala EthnologyLegends of Site

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The President and Fellows of Harvard CollegePeabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
Legends of Lālibalā: The Development of an Ethiopian Pilgrimage SiteAuthor(s): Marilyn E. HeldmanSource:
RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics,
No. 27 (Spring, 1995), pp. 25-38Published by:
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Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
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 RES: Anthropology and  Aesthetics.
Legends of L?libal?
The development of an Ethiopian pilgrimage site
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a group of churches was carved from the mountains of Ethiopia's Lasta province, thus creating the ceremonial center of the Z?gw? dynasty (circa 1137-1270).1 Originally named Roha or Warwar, the site is presently known as L?libal?.2 Francisco Alvarez, a member of the Portuguese delegation to the Ethiopian court in the early sixteenth century, was the first European to visit and describe this magnificent architectural complex of rock-cut churches and to observe Ethiopian pilgrimage there, although it was not until the twentieth century that this architectural wonder achieved international recognition.3 The churches have been photographed, restored more than once, and plans and elevations have been drawn, but the varied associations of holiness attached to this extraordinary complex remain essentially unexplored.4 That the ceremonial center was created by the Z?gw? kings as the Holy Land in Ethiopia is commonly known. I have argued elsewhere that originally L?libal? was created not only as the Holy Land in Ethiopia but also as a new Aksum, Aksum being Ethiopia's ancient political capital and the site of its metropolitan cathedral, Maryam Qeyon, or Saint Mary of Zion.5 This study will investigate an important shift in the basis of sanctity associated with the ceremonial center. With this shift, which occurred during the fifteenth century, the architectural quotations that originally invoked the special holiness of the site were enhanced by a sanctity derived from the cult of saints. A chapel of the Virgins, Beta Dan?gel (literally House of the Virgins ), is carved into the south rock face of the courtyard of a larger, freestanding church, Beta Maryam (the house or church of Saint Mary), which is southwest of the great freestanding church of the Redeemer (fig. 1).6 The chapel's dedication to the Virgins presents an intriguing hagiographie puzzle; one wonders about the identity of the Virgins. By
1. The political capital was at nearby Adafa; see Taddesse Tamrat, Church and State in Ethiopia, 1270-1527 (Oxford, 1972), p. 59, n. 5. Most dates of the dynasty are not firm; according to one tradition, the Z?gw? kings reigned for 133 years. The dynasty was overthrown in a.d. 1270 by Yekunno Aml?k. For a summary of the historic traditions, see G. W. B. Huntingford, The Wealth of Kings' and the End of the Zague Dynasty, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) 28, no. 1 (1965): 1-23. 2. Getatchew Haile, On the House of Lasta from the History of Zena G?bra'el, Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of Ethiopian Studies, Moscow, 1986 (Moscow, 1988), vol. 6, p. 8 (text), p. 13 (trans.). 3. F. Alvarez, The Pr?ster John of the Indies, a True Relation of the Lands of the Pr?ster John, being the Narrative of the Portuguese Embassy to Ethiopia in 1520, ed. C. F. Beckingham and G. W. B. Huntingford, Hakluyt Society 2d ser., vols. 114-115 (Cambridge, 1961), vol. 1, pp. 205-227. Apparently it was not visited again by Europeans until 1868 when the German explorer Gerhard Rohlfs rediscovered it; in 1881 it was visited by Achille Raffray, the French consul at Massawa. G. Rohlfs, Land und Volk in Afrika (Bremen, 1870), pp. 122 ff.; A. Raffray, Voyage en Abyssinie et au Pays des Gallas Ra?as, Bulletin de la Soci?t? de G?ographie, 2e trimestre (Paris, 1882): 344 ff. 4. L. Bianchi Barriveriera, Le chiese ?n roccia di Lalibel? e di altri luoghi del Lasta, Rassegna di Studi Etiopici 18 (1962): 5-76 and pis. (not consecutively numbered); Bianchi Barriviera, Le chiese ?n roccia di Lalibel?, Rassegna di Studi Etiopici 19 (1963): 7-118 and pis. Etchings of plans, elevations, and drawings by Bianchi Barriviera were published in 1943 in a limited edition. His work was done in 1939 during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia under the direction of A. A. Monti della Corte (Lalibel?, le chiese ipogee e monolitiche e gli altri monumenti m?di?vale del Lasta [Rome, 1940]). See also G. Gerster, Churches in Rock (London, 1970), first published as Kirchen im Fels (Stuttgart, 1968); International Fund for Monuments, Inc., Lalibel??Phase I, Adventure in Restoration (New York, 1967). In the photograph of the church of the Redeemer (fig. 5) what appears to be masonry supports are modern replacements of damaged rock-cut piers. As of this writing, the structures are urgently in need of extensive restorations. 5. M. E. Heldman, Architectural Symbolism, Sacred Geography and the Ethiopian Church, Journal of Religion in Africa 22, no. 3 (1992): 222-241. When making reference to the Ethiopian $eyon cathedral I shall spell the name Zion, following the title of the special exhibition African Zion: Sacred Art of Ethiopia; when making reference to the mountain or church of the same name in Jerusalem, I shall spell the name Sion, following the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (Oxford, New York, 1991). Ethiopia had only one cathedral. Prior to the 1950s, when the Ethiopian Church became autocephalous, its metropolitan bishop was an Egyptian monk appointed by the Patriarch of Alexandria. 6. G. Gerster, Churches in Rock, pi. 63; for a plan and elevation, see L. Bianchi Barriviera, Le chiese in roccia di Lalibel? (1962): pis. 11, 13.
26 RES 27 SPRING 1995 Figure 1. Ground plan of the first group of churches at L?libal?: (1) the dual church of Golgotha and Dabra Sin?, or Saint Michael; (2) Beta Maryam, or church of Saint Mary; (3) Beta Dan?gel, or chapel of the Virgins; (4) Madh?ne ?lam,
or church of the Redeemer. Redrawn after L. Bianchi
Barriviera, Le chiese in roccia di Lalibel? e di altri luoghi del Lasta, Rasseqna di Studi Etiopici 18 (1962): pi. 3. Drawing:
M. Heldman.
reconstructing the original meaning of this dedication and comparing it with later traditions, it will become apparent that the original dedication had been supplanted by an association with purported virgin martyrs. This slight but significant shift in the dedication is but one of a series of changes in associations attached to the complex. These changes are explained by hagiographie traditions of Ethiopia's holy King L?libal?. According to priests at the ceremonial site, henceforth to be referred to as Roha-L?libal? (combining its original name, Roha or Warwar, with its present toponym, L?libal?), the chapel known as the House of the Virgins was excavated from living rock in honor of the Fifty Virgin Martyrs of Edessa and their abbess Sophia.7 Alvarez referred to this chapel as the church of the Martyrs, thus demonstrating that by the early sixteenth century, the dedication of the chapel of the Virgins was commonly associated with martyrs, the Fifty Virgin Martyrs of Edessa to which the priests presently refer.8 An account of their martyrdom is found in the Synaxary of the Ethiopian Church. The Synaxary (the word derives from the Greek synaxarion) is a collection of r?sum?s of the lives of saints arranged for each day of the year; each r?sum? is read on the day of the saint's commemoration, which is usually the day of her or his death. Both the earlier recension of the Ethiopian Synaxary, which dates to the early fifteenth century, and the revised sixteenth-century recension feature the commemoration of the Fifty Virgin Martyrs of Edessa and their abbess Sophia on 10 Hed?r (19 November, Gregorian calendar), the day in which they became martyrs.9 According to the Ethiopian Synaxary, the nuns were martyred when Emperor Julian the Apostate passed through Edessa on his way to engage the Persians in battle and ordered his soldiers to kill the nuns and plunder their convent.10 Manuscripts of the Synaxary of Egyptian or Coptic Church, the recension of Lower Egypt, date to the sixteenth century and later feature the commemoration of the Fifty Virgin Martyrs of Edessa and their abbess Sophia on 10 Hatur (10 Hed?r, or 19 November). In contrast, the Upper Egyptian or Sahidic recension of the Coptic Synaxary, which is earlier and independent of the sixteenth-century recension of Lower Egypt, commemorates Saint Anba Markya (an ascetic of Alexandria) on 10 Hatur, and includes no mention of
7. This information, collected and recorded by the anthropologist Dr. E. D. Hecht, was published in the Ethiopian Tourist Organization's booklet entitled Lalibel?, text by E. D. Hecht (Addis Ababa, n.d. [circa 1968]), p. 11. R. Sauter ( O? en est notre connaissance des ?glises rupestres d'Ethiopie, Annales d'Ethiopie 5 [1963]: 264, no. 37) reported that the chapel is dedicated to virgin martyrs, but questioned which virgin martyrs in specific. Gerster (see n. 4, p. 97) reported that the chapel is dedicated to the maidens martyred under Julian, without citing his source, which I presume to be the priests at Roha-L?libal?. 8. Alvarez (see n. 3), vol. 1, pp. 205, 224. 9. On the earlier recension of the Ethiopian Synaxary preserved in a late fifteenth-century manuscript in Paris, see R.-G. Coquin, Le synaxaire ?thiopien: note codicologique sur le ms. Paris B.N. d'Abbadie 66-66bis., Analecta Bollandiana 102 (1984): 50-51. The Ethiopian Synaxary was revised and expanded between 1559 and 1581 at an undisclosed center of learning. 10. G. Colin, ed. and trans., Le synaxaire ?thiopien, mois de Hed?r, Patrolog?a Orientalis 44 (1988): 280-283 (10 Hed?r); E. A. W. Budge, The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church (Cambridge, 1928; reprinted 1976), vol. 1, pp. 228-230.

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