Rock-cut churches survive in Ethiopia

by Zelalem

TORONTO – Ten years ago Michael Gervers visited an ancient church cut into the side of a cliff in a remote region of Ethiopia. The history professor with the University of Toronto had been hunting down antiquities as part of his research on Christian artifacts when locals took him to the area.

Parishioners used ropes and a chain to haul themselves up to pray in the church carved into rock centuries ago. As Gervers looked around, he noticed another structure at the base of the cliff, also hewn from rock.

A craftsman and a small team had carved a new place of worship into the bottom of the cliff with a chisel and hammer a few years earlier to help the elderly who could no longer climb to the church at the top, Gervers says.

Scholars believed the craft of cutting churches out of rock — practised predominantly in Ethiopia — had been largely lost to time some 500 years ago, Gervers says. But his research, which documents the practice that can transform rock face into free-standing buildings, proves otherwise.

In early November, Gervers released some of his findings to the world when he published interviews with craftsmen, priests and parishioners, as well as images of the Ethiopian rock-cut churches he’s seen, on the university’s website. The web resource is expected to eventually contain hundreds of photographs, transcripts and hours of video interviews about the practice.

It is believed that churches were built out of rock as early as the 12th century, and possibly earlier, Gervers says. They are of two styles: cave and monolithic churches.

Cave churches are essentially cut into the side of a cliff whereas monolithic churches are cut out from the rock, working from the surface digging down to create both the outside and inside of a free-standing structure.

The Canadian Press

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