Aba Defar

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  • Location:

    HIghlands, Ethiopia

  • Status:

    Extant

  • Artist:
About the Artist/Site

Defar, a former weaver, recounted that he had a dream in 1959 in which he saw the Holy Spirit. This dream included images of a mountain church carved out of a slick rock face, yet he was at a loss as to how to interpret it. After continuing to experience this same dream for thirty more years, he had a vision of a hermit dressed in white. Holding a long cross, the hermit urged Defar to honor the predicted coming of the Messiah, the “Chosen One;” as he spoke, a white dove, Christian symbol of the Holy Spirit, landed on his shoulder. This vision was repeated a second time, and Defar, himself an Orthodox Christian, interpreted it as a religious directive, mandating him to carve churches on the side of the mountain. He left his family and began to concentrate on his mission.

Ethiopia, one of the earliest nations to adopt Christianity, is renowned for its rock-hewn churches, many centered in Lalibela in the Amhara region; in their style and layout they are understood to symbolically represent the holy city of Jerusalem. These churches, Coptic Christian pilgrimage sites, primarily date from the 12th and 13th centuries; eleven have been identified by UNESCO as sites of international cultural heritage.

Like Ethiopia’s monolithic churches from previous centuries, which were carved into the ground or into the side of a hill or mountain (single freestanding blocks of stone this size are rare), Aba Defar’s churches, four of which have been completed to date, are also created in-situ, where the rock-face naturally occurs. Yet unlike those historical masterpieces, Aba Defar works not with a team but on his own, using simple hand tools like picks and shovels. As of this writing he has completed four churches, each picked out from the sheer rock of the mountain face without the use of any external materials such as cement. Each measures roughly 5 x 10 meters (16 x 32 feet), and are generally more minimalist and austere in design than the historical examples.

~Jo Farb Hernández

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