Monolithic Architecture | Ethiopian Architecture

Picture by Bernard Gagnon

Monolithic Architecture

Mostly associated with the ancient world, monolithic structures are buildings that are carved, cast, or excavated from a single piece of material. Immovable reminders that civilizations once excelled at architecture. Either through slave labor, aliens, or pure technical marvels these structures defy the capabilities of mankind and were the epitome of technology back then. Ethiopia has several of these monoliths, mostly if not all churches, and they too have been the subject of admiration and conspiracies. Some say the templars built them, others angels and very rare few groups mention aliens. end of the day they’re fascinating, and here’s why.

rock-hewn churches

King Lalibela wanting to build the next Jerusalem said this to himself “why don’t I carve out a single stone to replicate the holy city?” after a second of pondering he said, “You there, find me a rock carver!” After taking a swig of that good honey mead he added “ We shall be the talk of the town!” aftershock in an unspecified amount of time, the rocks were indeed carved and the city was named after him. True story.

Anyway, these eleven churches are not just a symbol of civilizations and a king with a vision but also marvels that should inspire us to see beyond ourselves. Each of the buildings were hewn out of giant pieces of rocks. Everything from the windows, stairways, doorways, columns, floors were made out of a single rock. Everything chiseled to perfection (for its time). Add a drainage system, ditches and trenches it becomes a heavy representation of the artistry and architecture that went into making this. Moreover, each of these churches have their own artistic achievement in terms of size, execution, variety, and boldness of form.

Picture by Bernard Gagnon

The sheer balls, or slave power (our history is riddled with contradictions, don’t blame us) these monuments took had to have had creatives at the back. There’s no way for a structure like this to exist without the right minds and artisans at the helm. Otherwise, it wouldn’t survive for generations and generations. That’s also the thing about architecture and any other artform. It’s a way for us to send messages to the future. Time capsules that will make future generations wonder how we manage to do it.

Picture by Ondřej Žváček

Axumite obelisks

Remnants of another once-great civilization the Axumite obelisks are phonolite (fine-grained volcanic igneous rock) monoliths that stand up to 24 meters tall. These structures were rumored to be erected as burial stelae for the once-great kings and nobility of Axum. Decorated with intricate false doors and windows, it is speculated that they signified the social stature of the nobility buried underneath.

Accompanying these massive constructs were burial chambers and what seem to be sacrificial altars. The form of these structures is one that has been surrounded by bizarre conspiracies. While the world isn’t sure whether the Axumite Kings were inspired by the human body or was a stela for religious offerings for the gods/God. What we know for sure, the structure is damn impressive and wouldn’t have been completed, again without some serious skill. The architecture was so strong that it still stands today. Hell, one of these was removed and brought back to the country and still stands. Talk about erections that last.

Picture by Christian Richters

The Dutch Embassy

Typology: Institution/Embassy
Location: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Architects: Bjarne Mastenbrock, Dick Van Gameren – Abba Architects Raas Architects
Client: Ministry Of Foreign Affairs Of The Netherlands
Completion Date: 2004
Built Area: 4,400 M²

Keeping up with the tradition, the Netherlands embassy in Ethiopia built one of the few buildings that mimic and echo this message. The structure is a blend of the ideal landscape of the Netherlands and Lalibela.

Picture by Christian Richters

Constructed on 5 hectares of lush land, the buildings in the compound include the main chancery building with residence of ambassador; separate residences for the deputy ambassador; staff residences, and a kindergarten.

The design is a blend of the metaphorical landscape of the Netherlands with the rock-hewn churches of Lalibella where the chancery building and ambassador residence stand as representative monuments to the two cultures. The chancery, a horizontally elongated volume, cuts across the sloping terrain, piercing inside a landscape abundant with trees, and continuing into the valley along the east-west axis. This together with the rough slightly reddish horizontal concrete construction gives a monumental feel to the whole project while fulfilling the functional requirement of an embassy building.


True the artform isn’t exactly a cakewalk, but at the same time if people in the 1200s did it and we’re still building eyesores at best and poverty masking structures at worst, what kind of message are we sending to the future generations.

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