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Inside a rock-hewn church in Ethiopia
Rock-hewn church of Agwäza (Gärᶜalta, Təgray), attributed to the late märigeta Zeberhan (+2015) of Ḥawzen © Michael Gervers

Written, and photographs, by Professor Michael Gervers – Professor of History at the University of Toronto and project team leader 

The highly endangered, historically significant, and virtually undocumented craft of constructing rock-cut churches in Ethiopia is now being recorded, thanks to a project funded by Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.

These churches are hewn from the rock-face into free-standing buildings and are some of the most iconic images of African Christianity. Carved by hand, using traditional tools, construction can last over several years, usually by teams of up to eight men.

Exterior of a chapel in the extensive rock-hewn complex in Ethiopia
Exterior of a chapel in the extensive rock-hewn complex made by märigeta Gäbrä Mäsqäl Täsämma at Ambager, near Gašäna in Lasta © Michael Gervers

This highly skilled craftsmanship dates from at least the Middle Ages, and yet it is not widely known that these churches are still being made today.

Inside a rock-hewn church in Ethiopia
Interior of the rock-hewn church of Maryam Mawka, Ḥawzen region, Tigray © Michael Gervers

However, the craft is fast disappearing – very few of the post-19th century churches are documented and the actual craft of church excavation has never been documented before.

Team of chisellers working on a large piece of rock in Ethiopia
Team of chisellers working on the north aisle of the rock-hewn church of May Wäyni Ǝnda Giyorgis, Ḥawzen region, Tigray © Michael Gervers

This project will document the more recent churches, as well as recording interviews with the craftsmen who create them. The materials created from this project will then be made available online for free in an open-access database.

Workmen chiselling out the church from rock
Video recording by Iacopo Patierno of workmen chiselling out the church to be of May Wäyni Ǝnda Giyorgis (Ḥawzen region) in the presence of the administrator, qäññ geta Ḥagos Gäbrä Ǝgziᵓabəḥer, and the translator/interviewer, Alula Akalu © Michael Gervers

The database that will be created will be of great scholarly value, and will significantly advance historical research on Ethiopia and on rock-hewn churches and spaces wherever they are found.

Two men preparing for rock chiselling
Priest Aba Atsibiha Teferi (right) preparing a chisel at May Wäyni Ǝnda Giyorgis (Ḥawzen region) while a smith works the sheepskin bellows © Michael Gervers

The database that will be created with the results will include:

• Plans, drawings, photographs and academic analysis outlining continuity of the medieval tradition

• Interviews with itinerant craftsman and workshops currently active in Ethiopia, recording a comprehensive account of their craft including religious traditions

• Liturgical tradition relevant to the process of hewing churches out of the rock

• Thesaurus of related vocabulary

• Documentation of tools used in the process of church-excavation

• Audio and video documentation of excavation of a rock-cut church

Large rock face with two entrances
Site of May Wäyni Ǝnda Giyorgis (Ḥawzen region) showing double entrances to the north aisle with workmen resting at the end of the day © Michael Gervers

The traditional techniques used to build the churches will soon be changing and developing into a more modernised system, for example with the use of power tools.

Workmen chiselling rock in Ethiopia
Workmen chiselling east and south towards the central aisle of May Wäyni Ǝnda Giyorgis (Ḥawzen). The roughly hewn square of stone at top centre will become a ‘hanging’ decorative relief © Michael Gervers

This means that time is fast running out for the opportunity to witness the traditional methods being used in action. It also makes our job of preserving this craft ever more important, as it forms a vital part of Ethiopian, and indeed religious, history.

Large mountain in Ethiopia where they carve out churches from rock
White sand debris excavated from the rock-hewn church of Shewito in the amba north-west of Ḥawzen © Michael Gervers

The construction of the churches is fascinating to observe. For example, they are carved from the top-down, meaning the ceilings are created first, and the main body of the hewn out spaces follow as the workers carve deeper into the rock – the opposite of brick built construction.

Ethiopian priest standing outside his church
Baḥtawi Gäbrä Maryam standing before the entrance to his rock-hewn church at Itissa in Ṥäwa  © Michael Gervers

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