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Lalibela: a version

Lalibela is very impressing. Cathedral size churches carved on rocks. An attempt to put together the refuge of a cave and the spirit of congregation of a church. Maybe caves were natural churches as Niemeyer thought when he planned an ecumenical church for Brasilia – a concrete cave. Lalibela's idea was different: use the matter of a cave and bring the church in. Not that the church is only a form, but it is an affordance of many shades of matter. Concrete, for instance, and stone – but in Lalibela the king wanted to carve them. He wanted to build a place for pilgrimage to replace Jerusalem – a new Jerusalem. But new Jerusalens are built on memory, where is hanging dreams, mixed tales, lapses of imagination, abundance of imagination and sheer lies. The city of stones could be made by carving inside the stone.

Now, they say the kings in the Zagwe dynasty were quite eager to play some role in the middle east conflicts – at the time, the invasion of Jerusalem by the Crusaders. Lalibela himself is said to have acquired some land in Jerusalem due to his diplomatic services between the Christian kings and Salahadin. The connection between Roha (old name for the town of Lalibela) and Jerusalem is not a distant one of a far away original and its imitation. One could say that maybe Roha played a role in Jerusalem's fate – it being impressive probably was part of the force of the Zagwe Christian kings in the bargain. If this is so, its geography (and architecture) played a role in Jerusalem's geography. Just as the pilgrims trade in versions. Pilgrimage shapes the imagined cities: one goes, comes back and makes up. Versions are not only epiphenomena, they are productive.

Stones. Jerusalem is built on stone, Lalibela's churches are carved on rocks. Stones are probably the best surrogate for eternal objetcs – they last more than life and seem to be reminiscent of an anorgic creation. Stones are the ultimate icon of what is external to us. A reality of a different kind, outer, harder, less shakeable, less movable. Stones are themselves carved up by geological assemblages. As such, they are part of alliances – they're neither following orders, mandates or laws of nature nor imposing something on something else. Jane Bennett would see them as capable of mod(e)yfication: matter acquires modes because it is modifiable. She then stresses that this is a process of being part of something, acquire a mode is part of an alliance of whatever else is around. In Szymborska's “Conversation with a stone”, one of my favorite of hers, has the stone saying to the person willing to visit its interior: you have imagination, but this is no more than a pale approximation of what you lack: the capacity to be part. This is maybe what stones keep and objects, even those made from stones, lack.


  1. Blending with the landscape is also a way to reduce visibility - to become less apparently present. Less conspicuous, the churches became part of the mountains and
    rock and less of a media; therefore calling less attention from afar, from the Moslem occupiers of the region, for instance. Instead of being part (by being media) of the societies around them, Lalibela chose to integrate the local religious life with rocks and make an alliance with their unattractiveness for conquerors.


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