In November 2017, Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie Haile-Selassie awarded Professor Michael Gervers the Grand Cross of the Order of the Star of Ethiopia in recognition of his research.

By Don Campbell (U of T) |

Carving churches out of rock using only a hammer and chisel may seem extraordinary to us, but for those living in rural areas of Ethiopia, it’s simply an expression of faith.

“It’s hard work … literally,” says University of Toronto Professor Michael Gervers, an expert on Ethiopian history.

Michael Gervers, a professor in the department of historical and cultural studies at U of T Scarborough, received a grant in 2015 from the Arcadia Fund to preserve digitally the knowledge and technique of how Ethiopia’s rock-cut churches are made. Since then, he’s traveled to Ethiopia three times and uncovered 20 modern churches across the country.

His work has attracted the attention of descendants of Ethiopian royalty. Last week, Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie Haile-Selassie, the grandson of the country’s last ruling emperor, awarded Gervers the Grand Cross of the Order of the Star of Ethiopia in recognition of his research.

“I was impressed by his passion and love for the country,” Haile-Selassie says. “It exposes the richness of Ethiopia’s culture and traditions, especially in its Christian form, to the world.”

There are hundreds of rock-cut churches scattered throughout Ethiopia, some dating as far back as the 12th century, with a few containing the finest examples of monumental stonework found anywhere in the world. The Church of St. George in Lalibela is one such example. As a world heritage site, it has long been heralded as a national treasure, but many thought the practice of carving churches from rock had all but disappeared 500 years ago. Even scholars of Ethiopian culture didn’t seem to know it was still taking place in remote areas of the country.

“Scholars and government officials didn’t seem to know it was happening. Even some church officials seemed surprised it was taking place,” says Gervers.

Since most of the modern rock-cut churches are being made in rural areas, the only way to find out more is to visit them. Often this involves traveling from village to village, and, once there, asking the craftsmen if they know of others that are being built, notes Gervers.

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