• Michael Gervers in Ethiopia, where he has been studying traditional Christian churches cut into the sandstone landscape

    Michael Gervers in Ethiopia, where he has been studying traditional Christian churches cut into the sandstone landscape. (Photo: Michael Gervers)

People have carved churches out of solid rock since at least the 11th century, but until recently, scholars thought the practice had died out. Enter Michael Gervers, a professor in the department of historical and cultural studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough and expert on Ethiopian history. While travelling throughout rural Ethiopia to digitize ecclesiastical manuscripts, he encountered hundreds of rock-cut churches, some carved not just within the past 500 years, but within the past two decades.

With the support of the U.K.-based Arcadia Fund, which has a focus on cultural preservation, Gervers is now digitally recording the knowledge and techniques of the few remaining stone church craftsmen in the rapidly industrializing country.

On the practicality of rock-hewn churches

What I’ve gathered from my interviews with craftsmen and villagers is that for one thing, it’s cheaper to make a rock church because the only expense they have is to pay the craftsman. Secondly is the question of upkeep. While a built church might last 100 years before it needs major structural repairs, a rockcut church will last for 1,000 years.

I asked one parishioner how she felt about having a service in a rock church as opposed to a standing one, and she looked at me as if I was stupid. She said, “What do you mean? It’s a church!” They see no distinction. It’s a place of worship.

On adventures in the field

Most of the churches in Ethiopia outside the capital of Addis Ababa are hard to get to; it’s as if you’re displaying your faith just by making these difficult journeys. Near the little village of Agwaza, 

there is an old rock church literally on top of a mountain. It was the most difficult climb I’ve ever made. The villagers tied a big rope around us to help us up. Near the top, there was an overhang, so you had to climb up and out and over. That was the only time in Ethiopia where I was actually afraid.

Rock cut church in rural Ethiopia

A rock-cut church in rural Ethiopia. (Photo: Michael Gervers)

On the importance of the work

From a technical standpoint, a lot of what happens in the Ethiopian countryside is the same as it was 2,000 years ago. Everything is done by hand, which makes it a wonderful place to study craft. But Ethiopia has recently dammed one of their major rivers, and is building another over the Blue Nile; they have the potential to produce a lot of electricity, which will change the industrial picture.

I interviewed a craftsman in Hawzen who said, “If you come again, bring me a pneumatic drill” — which is exactly why we wanted to document this now, before pneumatic drills come in and the craft disappears!