September 18, 2018 @ 7:45 pm – 9:00 pm
The Athenaeum
Boundary Terraces (at the intersection of Mariendahl Lane and Campground Road)
Cape Town

TOPIC: Ethiopia Rocks

SPEAKERS: Marion Ellis & Lauren Muller

This month’s talk promises to be absolutely fascinating! Whilst we normally focus on our local Cape vernacular, this month’s examination of the vernacular architecture, both sacred and secular, of Ethiopia will open an insight into an ancient African vernacular architectural tradition that responds to terrain, religious tradition and local materials.

The illustrated talk looks at Ethiopia’s rock-hewn churches and monasteries, contextualizing them within their historical timelines, hybrid cultures and pre-Christian roots.

The old gateway, and Maryam Tsion church where the Ark of the Covenant is said to be housed.

Seen as living cultural resources by the locals, these fascinating and architecturally astounding edifices are found in the ancient towns, World Heritage Sites, and awe-inspiring mountain terrains of northern Ethiopia.

Marion Ellis and Lauren Muller, having travelled to Ethiopia in July, share some recent images, sounds and embodied experiences involved in visiting this extraordinary slice of African history and design.

Biet Ghiorgis church in Lalibela


They’ll also look at the functionality of Hidmo dwellings, agricultural compounds and stone terraces of the Tigray region, where dressed stone vernacular architecture is embedded within the ecologically challenging geographic landscape of abundant stone, scarce timber and water resources.

The plan of the Biet Ghiorghis church that was carved out of the rock.


Marion Ellis

Marion, has been a member of the Vernacs for many years and has served on the committee in various capacities. She studied languages and history of art at the University of Cape Town before creating Cape Insights that offers an in-depth look of South Africa’s cultural landscape via special interest tours in a variety of fields, including architecture.

Lauren Muller

Lauren, also a Vernac member, trained as a clinical psychologist, with postgraduate African Studies. Her organization Contact Zone, researches and develop tourism routes and tours for alternative public cultures, history and memory.

Ethiopian Rock churches: a Unesco World heritage Site

Outstanding Universal Value

Brief synthesis

In a mountainous region in the heart of Ethiopia, some 645 km from Addis Ababa, eleven medieval monolithic churches were carved out of rock. Their building is attributed to King Lalibela who set out to construct in the 12th century a ‘New Jerusalem’, after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the holy Land. Lalibela flourished after the decline of the Aksum Empire.

There are two main groups of churches – to the north of the river Jordan: Biete Medhani Alem  (House of the Saviour of the World), Biete  Mariam (House of Mary), Biete  Maskal (House of the Cross), Biete Denagel (House of Virgins), Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael); and to the south of the river, Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercoreos), Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos), Biete Gabriel Raphael (House of Gabriel Raphael), and Biete Lehem (House of Holy Bread). The eleventh church, Biete Ghiorgis (House of St. George), is isolated from the others, but connected by a system of trenches.

The churches were not constructed in a traditional way but rather were hewn from the living rock of monolithic blocks. These blocks were further chiselled out, forming doors, windows, columns, various floors, roofs etc. This gigantic work was further completed with an extensive system of drainage ditches, trenches and ceremonial passages, some with openings to hermit caves and catacombs.

Biete Medhani Alem with its five aisles, is believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, while Biete Ghiorgis has a remarkable cruciform plan. Most were probably used as churches from the outset, but Biete Mercoreos and Biete Gabriel Rafael may formerly have been royal residences. Several of the interiors are decorated with mural paintings.

Near the churches, the village of Lalibela has two storey round houses, constructed of local red stone, and known as the Lasta Tukuls. These exceptional churches have been the focus of pilgrimage for Coptic Christians since the 12th century.

(From the Unesco website:

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