Lalibela and Libanos, the King and the Hydro-Engineer of 13th-Century Ethiopia

Lalibela and Libanos, the King and the Hydro-Engineer of 13th-Century Ethiopia

By Mark Jarzombek

Thresholds. Vol.34 (200?)

Introduction: The complex of rock-cut churches in the city of Lalibela, Ethiopia, is celebrated as one of the great religious sites of the world. In a few years, a lofty UNESCO-funded space-frame roof will protect some of the churches from the ravages of heat and time. The attention that this site has received in recent decades has intensified scholarly debates about the churches: How were they built? What religious iconography underlies their design? What was their liturgical function? Were they modelled on the Holy Land? Were all twelve built by King Lalibela who ruled in the early thirteenth century, as tradition claims? While such issues are central to our understanding of the churches, this paper considers a neglected, if no less important, aspect of this religious site, namely water. I will argue that Lalibela was just as much a hydroengineering marvel as it was a religious site. In fact, its hydroengineering not only guaranteed the city’s economic foundation, but was also an intrinsic part of its religious message. Needless to say, unlike Petra and Hellenistic-era sites which have long been appreciated for their hydro-engineering, Lalibela is given little recognition in this regard, and this despite the fact that the most astonishing aspect of the pools associated with the churches is that they are located at the top of a high plateau one thousand meters over the valley floor.

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