The Churches of Lalibela; Religious Past, Architectural Future

August 15, 2011

What drives us, the architectural/engineering world, to always design up and out?

As you look back through history, some designs were mandatory to meet those specifications, such as castles that were designed as protection in war times, lighthouses designed to guide and direct naval voyages, or homes built tall enough that a widow’s walk allowed the worried wife to see her husband’s safe return.

But in general most designs were built only in terms of pride, a competition to show who was the better builder/designer. So why, after years, decades, even centuries, with new technologies galore and examples present, have we never directed our designs inward? Do we feel that we are superior and must design accordingly even to this day?

The industry needs to start focusing more on the examples of what was built that has survived and where we are heading as a changing world in terms of environment, population and available materials.

An example that demonstrates the abilities of what the earth can offer is a place that was established centuries ago which continues to be a tourist attraction and is still used as originally designed. This place is Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Lalibela is a very rural area with a population of approximately 8,000-10,000 people, and about 1,000 of those inhabitants are priests. The community has only recently received electricity and there are only a few motorized vehicles, no gas stations and no paved roads.

Lalibela was originally known as Roha but was renamed after the 12th century king, King Lalibela. He commissioned the stone churches which are still standing and in use today. There are eleven churches, he directed, each carved out of its own single block of granite and the roof is at ground level and a 12th church commissioned by his wife as his memorial.

King Lalibela’s idea was to create a “New Jerusalem” for those people who could not make the sacred journey to the “Holy City.” The idea came from Jerusalem but what the king created was entirely unique and sacred architecture.




Jennifer Shockley

Jennifer is originally from Colorado and has recently moved back from Michigan. She is finishing up her Master’s degree in Architecture. She is currently focusing on urban planning and sustainable design and hopes to gain employment at a design firm specializing in these areas. Jennifer also has writing experience serving as an editor for her school newspaper and college magazine. Jennifer has two cats named Prada and Dior-aptly named after her shoe obsession. You can follow Jennifer on twitter @jenshock81.