The Rock-hewn churches of Lalibela: Bete Giyorgis

Bete Giyorgis ቤተ ጊዮርጊስ
Lalibela, Ethiopia
12° 01′ 53,98″ N, 39° 02′ 28,15″ E
12th Century

Lalibela is a city in the Amhara Region of Ethiopia. It was named after the late-12th century King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela of the Zagwe Dynasty. He commissioned a massive religious project, the edification of 11 rock-hewn churches. These churches are of two different types: monoliths or hypogeums. The site was supposed to recreate the holy city of Jerusalem. As it became more difficult to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem due to Islam expansion, he wanted to allow the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church to have their own Holy Land.
The archaeological site consists of 3 sections: the southeastern group, the northweastern group, and Bete (or Biete) Giorgis. This one, meaning the church of St George in Amharic, is located alone in the south west, connected by a network of passages and tunnels of almost 400m, cut in the rock.

Irmgard Bidder draw in 1958 a report of the position of the churches in Lalibela.
The First group (1), SE section, consists of a group of five churches including Bete Amanuel, Bete Mercoreus, Bete Libanos, Bete Gabriel, and Bete Lehem.
The Second group (2) of five churches, NW section, are all organized around the Grave of Adam, it includes the double-church Bete Golgotha and Bete Mikael as well as Bete Mariam, Bete Denagel, Bete Maskal and Bete Medhani-Alem.
The single church of Bete Giyorgis (3) stays distant and alone, it’s the best known of the rock medieval ethiopian churches.

At around 2500m of altitude, Bete Giyorgis, like the other 10 churches, was carved out of rock. It is located in a trapezoidal shaft of about 25m by 25m, dug into the pink volcanic tuff of the Lasta plateau. The edifice follows a cruciform plan, known as the Greek cross. Without its base, which is the only attachment to the rock, it is 12m wide and the same height. It is estimated that about 3400 cubic metres of rock must have been removed around it and 450 cubic metres excavated inside to carve and decorate the church. It is accessible via a descending trench and a tunnel, which gives access to a sunken courtyard surrounding the building.

Lalibela Bete Giyorgis
Ground plan of Bete Giyorgis, by the Italian painter and engraver Bianchi Barriviera

The building contains a small baptistery. Its vertical walls have a number of caves which are used as basic accommodation for priests and as burial tombs. The lower windows of the building are in the Axumite style, while the upper windows are in the form of floral ogive windows, reminiscent of those of Biet Golgothà. The motif of the Greek cross is repeated outside three times on the roof of the church. To date, it remains in use by the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church. 

Photo credits: A. Davey, Alex Ruan (aerial view)
Illustration credits: Quadraletics, Hidden Architecture
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