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Jacques Mercier is a French researcher of anthropology and art. He previously taught philosophy at a French school during the time of Emperor Haileselassie. He came to Ethiopia in 1971. That is when he became interested in Telsem a type of Ethiopian mysticism in which images are believed to have healing powers.

Jacques Mercier has been studying this type of esoteric art for the past forty years. He and his colleague Claude Lepage, a professor of Byzantine Art, have completed a book entitled “Lalibela, Wonders of Ethiopia”, which is to be distributed by Shama Books beginning this month. Mercier feels there is something extraordinary and supernatural about Lalibela that goes beyond the Church’s buildings and reflects the story of the Gospel of John. He argues that the real story of Lalibela has been poorly preserved and that there is more than meets the eye. Capital’s Pawlos Belete and Solomon Bekele spoke with Jacques Mercier about unlocking the secret of this spiritual treasure. Excerpts:

Capital: How did you become interested in Ethiopian Churches?

Jacques Mercier: In 1997, I was studying the heritage of Ethiopian churches to conduct an inventory of the treasures they still have there. Ethiopia is losing many of its historical riches because, on one hand people are taking them out of the country illegally, and on the other there is not a complete recorded inventory of what Ethiopia has. This makes it difficult for people to keep track of these priceless items which should be kept for future generations. Ethiopia has very precious manuscripts and crosses. I visited about three hundred fifty churches and monasteries and inventoried what they have.  One book about the Abreha Atsbeha church of Tigray was published, although I wrote others. I found some historical items as well and offered them to a museum in Mekelle. I believe that is the most important thing to do. Three years ago I found a cross of Abune Yared in an American collection and convinced people to return it. I edited a book about heritage of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and tried to encourage them to protect their heritage. I want to encourage international cooperation to conserve antiques. I also assisted with the restoration of the Debretsion Church in Delalta and from that I became involved with Lalibela because, at that time, the European Union was working to protect Lalibela. I worked with Claude Lepage, Professor of Byzantine Art in Paris.

Capital: How long did it take you to conduct your research and write the book?

Mercier: In 2008, we decided to write a book about Lalibela and we thought it would take a year but it actually took four years. Even though it took longer than we thought it allowed us to discover new things about Lalibela. The knowledge about the dates of churches of Lalibela is based on oral tradition. The churches are attributed to King Lalibela but without evidence. We took an academic approach and looked for empirical evidence. However there really is not this kind of information about Lalibela. 

Capital: Why are the churches attributed to King Lalibela?

Mercier: Some are contesting the dates, for example an English researcher named Philips argues that some of the churches of Lalibela were actually built in the seventh century and others in the tenth century. Most knowledge of Lalibela is based on assumption. We arranged the facts in chronological order. The first thing we established in our book is the date. There was no date scientifically reconstructed besides the one with the oral tradition. There was a text about a land grant. The text of land grant is found in Debrelibanos of Ham in the present day Eritrea. At that time Debrelibanos of Ham was the main monastery of Ethiopia. Lalibela was built following the fall of Axum. We should re-establish the date because there was a mistake when the information was copied from a sculpture as it was not copied from the original sculpture. The original sculpture was copied more than 100 years ago but nobody noticed it. I took this information from the book of Tekletsadik Mekuria and changed the number 10 written in Ge’ez into three and I got 389. These number represents church calendar and all the land grants of that time. When you have these dates changed to the Ethiopian calendar you will have 1197 (1204 Julian calendar) which is the date of Lalibela.

Capital: Why change the numbers?

Mercier: Because, the numbers have no meaning otherwise. It has no meaning when we relate it to the reign of King Lalibela. It is something impossible. There was a mistake when the first man copied the information from the sculpture. Some part of the sculpture which embodied the information had fallen. When you write number 10 in Ge’ez you put a small line at the top. The man who copied the information from the original sculpture thought that the number was 10 simply because the figure appeared shorter. After that the story attached to the figure has been lost. That is why we argue it is 389. When you have these dates changed to Ethiopian calendar you will have 1197 which is the date of Lalibela. We know that he was king at this time.

Capital: How do you relate the land grant text you have researched with Lalibela?

Mercier: In Lalibela, Bete Mariyam and Bete Meskel churches were built on the land granted. There is a document that showed the year of the land grants. By then the big churches or monasteries were in Eritrea where people were concerned about Debrelibanos. In the book we have demonstrated that the land grant was for the churches of Lalibella. The land grant came from Debrelibanos in Eritrea and the revenue was given to Bete Mariyam. So, we got the date from that land grant document. This is because Debrelibanos was the mother monastery of Bete Mariam. Debrelibanos used to send clergy, priests and so on to Lalibela churches. It is a confirmed fact that people in Lalibela earned the patronage of Debrelibanos of Ham which was the first monastery in the region at that time. Therefore, we have established that Debrelibanos of Ham was the mother monastery of the Lalibela churches. Bete Mariyam was the Royal Church. Thus, we can see that there was a kind of political project in Lalibela. You have also a bishop from there which is the first Ethiopian bishop. We have established that he was not known. He was the brother of a Queen from Shemizana province. So, the bishop of Lalibela was from the North and Abbot of Debrelibanos was from Bugna of Lasta area. This clearly indicates that there was a political project to tie the two areas, linking the ancient Christian monastery to the new one, Lalibela. All this activity was performed politically to put the metropolitan bishop in Lalibela. One of the churches of Lalibela was a place for the metropolitan bishop of the time called Michael.  You have two groups of churches in Lalibela, the Royal Group and Ecclesiastic Group.

Capital: What is the main message your research brings?

Mercier: Lalibela is unique to the Christian world. The most important contribution of this book is the revelation of the mysticism of Lalibela. We have demonstrated the core elements of the royal group of churches including their sanctuary, the painting of the transfiguration on the triumphal arch of Bete Mariyam. In the transfiguration, Apostle Philip is represented instead of James as in the gospel of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the sanctuary where the funeral complex is the Trinity it is represented in a manner unique to the Christian world; the Father is represented by an empty throne and the Holly Spirit in the shape of the Paracletos as described in the Gospel of John.  We can say that the Gospel of John was the main source of inspiration for the mystical program of Lalibela. These facts which are depicted on the ceiling of the churches have been forgotten.

This is an important finding as it modifies traditional beliefs claiming that the churches came down from sky. Others pull back the construction period to the seventh century. But now date of the construction was fixed based on the document and at the same time it provides the image of an ambitious and original program under the leadership of King Lalibela and proves the churches were originally built by Ethiopians. We have presented all this in a conference at Addis Ababa University. That was a great time for Ethiopia. We have now confirmed the date and the mystical secrets in the new book.