The Zagwe Dynasty


Axum began to decline in the early decades of the 7th century following the rise and rapid expansion of the Muslim Arabs throughout the Middle East. Both Byzantium and the Persian Empire fell to the Arabs and this dealt a deathblow to the trading endeavours of the Axumite kings. Little is known of what became of the Axumite kingdom between the 8th and 11th centuries. Around the middle of the 11th century the Ethiopian state reappeared as the Christian Zagwe dynasty with its center in the town of Roha in the Amhara region of the Ethiopian highlands.

By the Tenth century, the Zagwe dynasty had emerged as a post-Axumite Christian Empire. The Zagwe kingdom was born out of the cultural and political interactions of the Cushitic and Semitic peoples in the northern highlands. Like the Axumite kingdom, the Zagwe dynasty was a political empire rooted in religion. The Zagwe devoted themselves to the construction of new churches and monasteries. Born out of this patron hip of religious art is the construction of the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Ethiopian Christianity, however, was increasingly isolated from other Christian nations. With the conversion of Egypt to Islam, the Zagwe dynasty lost contact with its closest link with the outside Christianity, the Egyptian Coptic Christian Church. This dynasty had passed through about sixteen kings out of which four are considerably outstanding and most influential kings. The most notable of the rulers of the Zagwe dynasty was King Lalibela who reigned from 1167 to 1207. A brilliant achievement of his reign was the construction of a dozen beautiful rock-hewn churches. According to legend, a dense cloud of bees surrounded the Prince Lalibela at the moment of his birth. His mother, claiming that the bees represented the soldiers who would one day serve her son, chose for him the name Lalibela, meaning "the bees recognize his sovereignty". Lalibela's older brother, King Harbay, was made jealous by these prophecies about his brother and tried to poison him. While Lalibela was drugged, angels transported him to various realms of heaven where God gave him directions to build a New Jerusalem with churches in a unique style. Lalibela also learned that he need not fear for his life or his sovereignty, for God had anointed him so that he might build the churches. After three days of divine communication, Lalibela returned to mortal existence and accepted the throne from his brother, who had also been visited by God (and told to abdicate to Lalibela). Both brothers traveled to the city of Roha and began the construction of the churches. Assisted by angels and St. Gabriel, they built twelve extraordinary churches over a period of twenty-five years. The Ethiopian Orthodox church later canonized the King and changed the name of the city of Roha to Lalibela. King Lalibela who was supposed to have hewn out the 11 churches was the only priest king. The rock hewn churches of laibela, which visitors from abroad often regard as something out of this world. It is said that the construction to have been carried out with remarkable speed, which is scarcely surprising, according to legend, angels joined the laborers by day and in the evening did double the amount of work which the main had done during the hours of day light. These notable structures are carved, inside and out, into the solid rock, and are considered to be among the wonders of the world.  Each building is architecturally unique but each reflects beautifully executed craftsmanship, and several are decorated with fascinating paintings. These astonishing edifices remain places of living worship to this day.

The churches of Lalibela are among the most extraordinary architectural creations of human civilization. Each church is sculpted, both inside and out, directly from the living bedrock of the earth. The churches have certain features in common, but at the same time differ widely from each other. They fall geographically in to three groups. Six churches are situated in close proximity to each other north of a river called Jordan which flows through the town in the rainy season, Namely Bete Medhanealem/house of the Savor of the world/, Bete Maryam/House of Mary/, Bete Danaghil/house of the virgin/,  Bete Qedus Mikael/ house saint micheal/, Bete Golgotha/House of the Golgotha/ and bête Sillasie/house of Trinity/. Another four stand to the south of the river, namely Bete Emanuel/house of Emanuel/, Bete Qedus Mrercoriuos/house of saint mercurios/, Bete Aba Libanos/house Aba Libanos/, Bete Qedus Gabriel Rafael/house of Gabriel and Rafael/. One other church Bete Ghiorgis/house of St. George lands at some distance away to the south west.

The motive for hewning out these churches is to create the second Jerusalem here in Ethiopia and save pilgrims from verities of suffering while going to Jerusalem and The churches are still used for worship today and many are filled with richly painted biblical murals.


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