Legends of L?libal?
The development of an Ethiopian pilgrimage site
MARILYN E. HELDMAN
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.