Lalibela: Spiritual Genealogy beyond Epistemic Violence in Ethiopia
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The rock hewn churches of Lalibela have special significance in the formation of Ethiopia’s consciousness as a sacred land of God’s covenant. Numerous local stories express the sanctity of Lalibela as a Heavenly Jerusalem on earth and the faithful use holy soil from the churches to cure the sick. Every year, thousands of Tewahido believers travel to receive blessings. Local scholars who studied decades in the indigenous education system serve as intermediaries between the sanctity of the place and the people, and transmit their knowledge to the younger generation. This paper traces this spiritual genealogy to the creation story in the Kebra Nagast regarding the Ark of the Covenant (Tabot) and relates it to Lalibela’s famous churches. It demonstrates the existence of enduring spiritual genealogy that considers place as alive and powerful. The paper also reflects on how the loss of indigenous sources of knowledges, particularly through the stealing or taking of manuscripts by foreign collectors, and the rise of a Eurocentric interpretation of the history of Lalibela challenges this millennial spiritual tradition. It argues that this has resulted in epistemic violence, the practice of interpreting local knowledge with a foreign lens in a way that reinforces colonial Eurocentric views that are then internalised within Africans themselves. Despite such challenges, it shows how the genealogy continues through the very identity and practice of local communities and individuals.
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