Monastery Construction: Feat of Engineering
Unique Top-Down Construction
The Lalibela rock-hewn monasteries were an Ethiopian feat of engineering and water technology. In the 13th century, King Lalibela built them from the top down. They are the only structures in the world to have been constructed in this way. Therefore, they are on the UNESCO World Heritage List Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela. View the list here. The list calls them churches, but they are monasteries: Orthodox places of worship and work.
Ethiopian engineer-priests carved the monasteries by hand, digging deep into solid granite rock. The building took them only 21 years for help was at hand: people constructed the monasteries by day; angels by night. They built them as a system of 11 monasteries, a tunnel network connecting them all. This is passable today, but only with guides – it is very easy to get lost in Adam’s Tunnel. It is the darkest place that I have visited.
On the same site, there was a 12th monastery that is not connected to the others. Further away, you can visit a mountain-top rock-hewn monastery: Asheten Mariyam. I listened to the guides on the way up and survived; another tourist had said, ‘I know what I’m doing,’ and did neither.
When you visit Lalibela Monasteries, get a guide; also pay for a museum tour. You will meet humble experts – the place is in their blood. Leave your shoes outside entrances and cover your head.
Caucasians like to say they have discovered or built everything. However, the plans for these monasteries were in Ge’ez, which is the classical language of Ethiopia. This proves that Ethiopians designed them. It was an Ethiopian king and his engineers who gave the world these marvels.
Ethiopian Water Preservation Technology
King Lalibela’s original water supply system still works. He built a waterfall into a canal that supplies water to Lalibela village. 800 years later, nobody knows how it operates. One reason is that the plans were in Ge’ez. Few speak and read it today after 4 decades of cultural disrespect by oppressors: communist Derg followed by TPLF or woyane.
Baptism or Temket
Many visitors to Lalibela have Temket (timket) or baptism. It is a little-known fact that, for thousands of years, Orthodox followers have been practising baptism. They incorporated Christianity thousands of years before Jesus Christ. This Temket font is filled with holy water. Its green colour is from qetema rushes. I was blessed with healing water flicked onto me by monks.
Until the November War, the Lalibela Rock-Hewn Monasteries were frequently full of visitors. Fully working, they served now: monks treated the sick – not all visitors were sightseers. Locals followed their ancient religion and worshipped at the monasteries; others travelled thousands of kilometres on pilgrimages. At Ginna (Ethiopian Christmas), they arrived by bus and on foot; locals gave them dinner and washed their feet. On January 07, 2017, they slept behind a tej bet on tarpaulin under the stars; the weather was beautiful.
King Lalibela’s feat of 13th century engineering serves Ethiopians forever.
Background to Engineering Report by Mesfin Tadesse
Mesfin wrote this in October 2018. He is a construction and civil (water development) engineer and registered builder. An academic applied for funding to tour Lalibela and report on conservation. Mesfin let him cite this report. The man used it, but did not acknowledge him, misappropriating it as his own. The academic also used photos we’d shared with him at a lecture, as though he’d taken them. Recognising Mesfin, the audience said, ‘We know that man. That’s his image!’ Caught out, the academic nevertheless enjoyed a funded tour of Lalibela in the name of conservation – for what?
In 2021, junta destroyed monastery water-preservation technology dating from before 1,000 BC: vaska (reservoirs) and canals for circulating and refreshing water. Thugs urinated in ancient “mother” for traditional health-promoting beer. At Bete Giyorgis—the largest monastery—they planted bombs. On its roof, they drilled mounts for sniper tripods and machine guns. Systematic vandalism of traditional resources was never committed by Ethiopians prior to November 2020 when the junta began destroying religious institutions throughout Ethiopia’s north. Conservation at Lalibela is needed more than ever, but it must be appropriate and not damaging.
Lalibela Rock-Hewn Monasteries Conservation Report
<The accompanying images are of the 8th wonder of the world: the 12 rock-hewn monasteries of Lalibela, Ethiopia. They are UNESCO World Heritage listed. This priceless asset needs to be looked after by professional archaeologists, building technicians and geologists, as well as the honest community worldwide. It needs conservation in readiness for handover to the next generation.
This marvellous ancient engineering work that is the Lalibela monasteries is vital to future engineering developments. Conserved, it will serve as a model generating construction-engineering innovations that will change the world for the better. These underground churches are built below ground level, yet they have remained without experiencing a single flood or sinking below ground water level.
The Lalibela monasteries have survived attacks by fire and bombing, as well as natural disasters including flooding of the surrounding countryside. This is largely due to the amazingly constructed underground-drainage system that did not use any kind of manufactured pipes and manholes. It includes manhole chambers and stormwater-drainage systems using retaining walls. The buildings were also protected by a unique overflow system.
Safety is of paramount importance. There are hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, including the very young, frail and elderly. For the protection of visitors, priests and monks, it is essential to install a handrail around the circle of underground churches, which are 30 metres down. This can be built cheaply with reasonable materials; there is no excuse not to treat this as a priority.
These photos illustrate damage from conservation carried out by the West that was also expensive and wasteful. They provide visual evidence that deterioration between the canvas awning and stone slab is not allowing the monastery walls to breathe, rapidly destroying the buildings. Support structures have been inserted directly into ancient masonry stonework, so that any movement causes cracks in the monastery walls.
This unprofessional work, lacking in all quality control and budget management, needs expert, monitored rectification. Restoration needs to be done by experts; that is, the traditional owners.
Disclaimer: This technical recommendation is independent and free of all political and religious influences, easter and western, as well as any other individual’s or group’s self interest and temporary benefit. It is not associated with any organisation. The author is a building technician with 31 years’ experience.>
Lalibela town was locked for months, its mountains hugging yellow fog. In June 2021, junta rebels had taken hostages in the monasteries. You may have read how the junta pillaged businesses, infrastructure and farms – with foreign assistance and a blind eye from the press. What was the fate of the owner of this tej bet honey-wine bar and hotel in Lalibela, where we stayed in 2017? Did the business survive junta hordes?
After Orthodox crosses turned up Down Under, I wrote about stolen cultural heritage. The junta demanded keys to the monasteries’ museum and the passcode for the underground treasury. Thugs beat monks to make them reveal the location of gold. And what of this angelic child?
Thieves stole parchment designs for the Lalibela-monastery complex; 3 metre x 1.5 metre birana or goatskin books. This included Audenegiste or Key of Knowledge. TPLF thieves carted them away using heavy-duty cables. Other looting included Orthodox crosses and 27 emperors’ crowns including that of Emperor Tewodros II.
The junta stole a 12-metre scroll, each roll dedicated to 1 science: astronomy, medicine, plant and animal genetics for breeding and water-development engineering. The 21st-century challenge is drinking-water supply says Mesfin, who is a water-development civil and construction engineer. King Lalibela’s 13th century water development at the complex was unique. The French tried unsuccessfully to replicate it. Some would welcome Ge’ez texts documenting ancient Abyssinia’s engineering innovations. Is this why UNESCO’s condemnation of looting and vandalism at Lalibela was so lame?
Later in 2021, TPLF thieves lay dead. Kalashnikovs at their shoulders, their corpses clutched priceless Orthodox crosses. Inside a monastery, another was frozen. Forever, he swings a sledgehammer. In Australia, Mesfin awoke crying. He had dreamed of Welo children running to safety and hiding others in a manhole.
The abun (abbott) of Waldeba Monastery—north of Lalibela—says that the junta stole 52 birana (Orthodox goatskin books) and tabo (Ark of the Covenant replicas). In Sydney, an 8,000 year old goatskin book has turned up. It belongs in an Ethiopian monastery. Question the provenance of antiques for sale such as these.
Throughout Amhara areas, from November 2020, the junta destroyed monasteries, churches and mosques, killed holy ones and looted. Pillaging is anathema to Africans.
- Mesfin Tadesse. Lalibela Rock-Hewn Monasteries Conservation Report. October 28th, 2018. Perth, Western Australia.
- Featured image: Top of Bete Giyorgis Lalibela Viewed at Ground Level © Mesfin Tadesse 2017
- Photos: Bete Giyorgis Rock-Hewn Monastery at Lalibela Lower-Level View, Lalibela Monasteries Adam’s Tunnel Entrance, Entry to a Lalibela Monastery, Bete Medhane Alem Rock-Hewn Monastery at Lalibela, Bete Medhan Alem Ceiling, King Lalibela’s 13th-Century Waterfall, Lalibela Rock-Hewn Monastery Baptism Water, Worshippers Inside Bete Medhane Alem at Lalibela Rock-Hewn Monasteries, Bete Igziabiherab Lalibela Rock-Hewn Monastery with Damaging Structures, Bete Igziabiherab Lalibela Rock-Hewn Monastery with Damaging Supports, Lalibela Torpido Tej Bet, Lalibela Monasteries Deacon © Mesfin Tadesse & Yerada Lij Australia 2017
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