Geological and geotechnical properties of the medieval rock hewn churches of Lalibela, Northern Ethiopia

Asfawossen Asrat, Yodit Ayallew

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8 Citations (Scopus)


Lalibela is a medieval settlement in Northern Ethiopia famous for its 11 beautifully carved rock hewn churches, registered as World Heritage Site in 1978. The rock hewn churches are grouped into three based on their proximity: the Bete Medhane Alem (Church of the Holy Saviour), Bete Gabriel-Rufael (Church of St. Gabriel-Rafael) and Bete Giorgis (Church of St. George) groups. The churches are carved out of a single, massive scoriaceous basalt hill which was deposited along an East-West extending palaeovalley in the Oligo-Miocene Trap basalt of the northwestern Ethiopian plateau.The Rock Mass Rating (RMR) classification scheme was used to classify the rock mass (assuming each church as a separate rock mass) based on their uniaxial compressive strength and the spacing and conditions of discontinuities. Though most of the churches are hewn from medium to high strength rock mass, discontinuities make them vulnerable to other deteriorating agents mainly weathering, and water infiltration. Most of the rock hewn churches are affected by pre-carving cooling joints and bedding plane discontinuities, and by mostly but not necessarily post-carving tectonic and seismic induced cracks and fractures. Material loss due to deep weathering triggered by rain water infiltration and uncontrolled groundwater seepage affects most of the churches, particularly the Bete Merqorios (Church of St. Mark) and Bete Aba Libanos (Church of Father Libanos) churches. The scoriaceous basalt which is porous and permeable allows easy passage of water while the underlying basalt is impermeable, increasing the residence time of water in the porous material, causing deep weathering and subsequent loss of material in some of the churches and adjoining courtyards.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)61-73
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of African Earth Sciences
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2011
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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