Ethiopia: Rocks in a Hard Place - Lalibela Priests Raise Fears Amid War and Weather

Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela - Ethiopia: The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela were constructed in the 13th century by the Christians as their new pilgrimage center and holy land.
7 February 2024

Cracks are widening along Ethiopia's ancient rock-hewn churches. Fighting has come perilously close, but rain is the bigger threat.

For the past decade, Father Gebez Sahilu Degen has awoken from his bed in the town of Lalibela in the northern Amhara region of Ethiopia before the sun has had a chance to rise.

He slowly ambles his way down dark streets towards the town's centuries-old rock-hewn churches, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that some consider the eighth wonder of the world. He arrives at Biete Amanuel, or the House of Emmanuel - one of the eleven churches carved out of a single block of stone. Rustling through his pockets, he retrieves the only key to the church, inserts it into the keyhole of the massive wooden door, and steps inside.

"Every morning when I walk inside the church, it feels like the first day I entered," explains Degen, the 58-year-old priest who is responsible for taking care of the ancient church. "Each day, it's a new and different feeling. This place is very special to me."

Considered architectural marvels, these monolithic churches were commissioned by Gebre Meskel Lalibela, then king of historic Ethiopia and after whom the city was named, during his reign in the 12th and 13th centuries. He designed the site as a substitute for the holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Names like the Mount of Olives and Mount Tabor reflect the biblical interpretations of Lalibela's landscape. In the Biet Golgotha church are replicas of the tomb of Jesus Christ and Adam, along with the crib of the Nativity. The river flowing through the town was named the River Jordan.

Tourists have long flocked here to visit this sacred site, still looked on with amazement by tourists, historians, and architects alike. Walking through the narrow corridors and labyrinth of tunnels carved between the holy rock structures feels like being transported in time. Men and women swathed in white robes line up outside the churches, placing their hands on the cold rock, closing their eyes and praying. Some lean forward and kiss the church walls. Incense engulfs the air and drumming begins as the church-goers begin their weekly Sunday service. These religious ceremonies have continued here uninterrupted - frozen in time - for more than 800 years.

But, over the years, the priests who care for these unique churches have expressed fears for their future.

Deep cracks line the inside and outside of the churches, their structures degraded by rains and temperature changes over centuries. UNESCO has deemed most of Lalibela's monuments to be in "critical condition". Emmanuel Church, where Degen has spent each day over the last decade bowed in prayer, could be facing an "imminent risk of collapse".

Since the Ethiopian government declared a still ongoing state of emergency in the Amhara region last August, fears have worsened over the preservation of these churches. Tourism has plummeted in Lalibela, while fighting has come dangerously close to the rock-hewn wonders.

"We are praying for peace here and throughout the world," Degen says, holding a large cross in his hands which is unique to Emmanuel Church. "But we are scared about what will happen here. This place has nourished my faith for many years. I pray each day these churches will continue to exist for people in the future."

An African Jerusalem

Ancient legends surround the history of both Lalibela the place and the man. The story goes that, at the time of his birth, Lalibela - whose name translates to "he eats honey" or "the bees obey him" - was surrounded by a swarm of bees that did not sting him. His mother interpreted that as a sign that her son would grow up to become an influential king, the insects symbolising the many soldiers who would end up following him.

As he grew up, prophecies that Lalibela would become a powerful ruler increasingly perturbed his older brother, the king. According to architect and historian Fasil Giorghis, the king attempted to poison Lalibela, prompting his younger brother to flee north. He eventually travelled 1,600 miles to Jerusalem - via, historians infer, the cathedrals and monuments of Axum, an ancient Christian city in the present-day Tigray region.

"This was at the time of the Crusades," says Giorghis. "You can imagine a young prince from the highlands of Ethiopia traveling to the holy land, exploring and experiencing this different world - meeting various people who speak many different languages."

15 years later, in around 1181, Lalibela returned to Ethiopia and claimed the throne. Soon after, he learnt that the Muslim leader Salah al-Din had defeated the Franks in Jerusalem and returned the holy city to Muslim control.

This prompted Lalibela to embark on an ambitious project to create an "African Jerusalem", a new home for Christianity in the Ethiopian highlands. Some say he was directed to do so in a dream in which an angel carried the king's soul to heaven, where Jesus Christ disclosed the designs for churches that would be dug rather than built.

Whether inspired by a dream or not, Lalibela ordered the excavation of a sloping mass of red volcanic scoria. According to historians, the project required thousands of workers using simple tools. Lalibela himself, Giorghis says, was also "deeply involved in the whole process of excavation".

Starting from outside, the workers created a huge trench, leaving a giant cube of solid rock in the middle. They then moved inwards, excavating doors, windows, columns, roofs, and floors along with an extensive system of drainage ditches, trenches, and ceremonial passages. Nothing was added, only taken away. It would take about 24 years of arduous labour to excavate 11 uniquely designed churches interspersed with hermit caves and catacombs. A small mountain town was transformed into an underground holy fortress, to which tens of thousands of pilgrims travel each year.

According to Giorghis, the excavations of the churches were likely done by "master stone cutters". The walls of the most famous of the rock-hewn churches, Biete Ghiorgis (or the House of St George), are not the same thickness throughout their length, with protruding horizontal stripes becoming thinner closer to the sky. This, Giorghis explains, "created a vertical illusion that the church is taller than it actually is".

Rock-hewn churches were not new to the northern highlands of Ethiopia. There were various reasons for excavating rock churches. One is the solidity of the material, making the churches "almost timeless". The other is religious. Christ was buried in a limestone tomb made of rock hewn from the side of a cave after he was crucified.

By the time of Lalibela, the region already had about four centuries of practice excavating rock churches. But, Giorghis says, Lalibela "perfected this tradition and it has not been surpassed since".

"The whole world should care"

Each Sunday, women and men, draped in white cotton netela and gabi, crowd into the carefully-chiselled churches. Men recite hymns and prayers in the ancient language of Ge'ez, while the younger among them slowly pound on a kebero, double-headed drums made from animal hide.

More than 800 years since its excavation, Lalibela remains a deeply sacred place for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Its priests insist the site is also of enormous global importance.

"Our churches are not just for the people of Lalibela, for Ethiopians, or for Christians - they are for the whole world," contends 57-year-old Father Gebez Nugisey Tesfaye, caretaker of Biete Medhane Alem (or the House of the Saviour of the World), believed to be the world's largest monolithic church.

"Anyone who comes to visit these churches will feel in their soul how important this place is," he continues. "The whole world should care about preserving these churches. They are a world treasure."

Father Gebez Derebe Kassawu, 60, looks after Biete Ghiorgis (or the House of St George), the most famous of the rock-hewn churches and only cross-shaped church in the sacred complex. He says the church's three-story design is inspired by Noah's Ark and is therefore for all God's creatures.

"Since the symbol of the church is Noah's ark, then everyone can feel at home here - all people and all animals," he says. "Anyone who visits these churches, their soul becomes blessed. And these blessings will continue for seven generations."

Priests in Lalibela, however, have grown increasingly concerned about their ability to safeguard these ancient structures.

In recent months, fighting has spilled into the town of Lalibela on several occasions between the Ethiopian military and the Fano. Mainly consisting of farmers and young men who formed militias to defend the ethnic Amhara people, the Fano initially fought alongside the federal government in the country's devastating two-year civil war. In 2022, however, the government signed a peace agreement with their adversaries, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), and ordered Fano to disband. The militias turned against the government.

In November, Fano overran the town of Lalibela, but were pushed out by the Ethiopian army the following day. According to residents, the churches were extremely close to the crossfire.

A large indent on the ground, which appears to have been caused by a mortar shell, remains a few meters from St George Church. Residents claim the damage was most likely caused by the Ethiopian army because the Fano militants are "people from the area who have a deep respect for the Lalibela churches".

According to locals, the priest who acts as the caretaker of Biete Abba Libanos (or the House of Abbot Libanos) was detained and beaten by the Ethiopian army after it regained control of the city. He was released after three days in detention.

While Fano receives widespread popular support across the Amhara region, "the priests are not part of the armed conflict," said one resident. "Regardless of whether or not they ideologically support Fano they stay away from the politics and do not get involved in the conflict. They should not be targeted by the army."

Widening cracks

While conflict brings an immediate threat to Lalibela, the preservation of the churches troubled priests long before the recent fighting erupted.

There are deep cracks along the walls and ceiling of Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (or the House of St Mercoreos), for instance, and Father Gebez Abeba Sisay, 62, says the damage was worsened over the 13 years he has been caretaker of the church.

"When it rains a lot, the water comes inside the church from the ceiling cracks," he tells African Arguments. "I see the cracks are becoming bigger and wider. We are always worried something is going to happen."

According to Giorghis, priests used to protect the structures from natural elements using traditional methods such as thatching the roofs during rainy seasons. During the Zagwe dynasty, local rulers collected wool from farmers in the countryside and manufactured mats which they would oil for waterproofing and stretch over the churches.

In the 20th century, these local traditions were jettisoned for more modern preservation and renovation techniques - some of which made matters worse. In the 1920s, for example, Empress Zewditu commissioned a Greek architect to repair some of the churches, which for centuries have been jointly managed by the Ethiopian government and Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He plastered them with cement and overlaid parts with reddish brown paint. The repairs, Giorghis says, were a "disaster" and served only to accelerate the deterioration.

Over the decades, other restorations were made with varying successes. According to Giorghis, the attempts are based on "trial and error" with success only being known after several years. "Still, experts are not sure how to properly restore [the churches]," he explains. "You have to give it time and see how [the solution] ages and how it blends with the natural rock."

The most promising restorations, he adds, are those that have used solutions most closely related to the natural rock and do not affect the original fabric of the churches.

At one point, the Ethiopian ministry of culture erected shelters made from eucalyptus wood that resembled scaffolding to protect the structures from the rains. In the 1990s, UNESCO got involved with preservation activities. In the absence of conclusive solutions, it recommended building stronger rain shelters that were more visibly pleasing.

In 2008, the Ethiopian government, with funding and assistance from the European Union, erected metal shelters to cover five of the churches to provide temporary protection. According to Giorghis, the structures were only meant to stay standing for 10 years, but they remain over 15 years later. African Arguments reached out to the Ethiopian government for comment, but no one replied. A UNESCO spokesperson says that the agency only provides expertise and analyses periodic reports from state parties; therefore, it was not involved in the construction or maintenance of the shelters.

Priests in Lalibela are now terrified that the heavy weight of these shelters will cause them to collapse and destroy the churches. According to residents in Lalibela, the fighting between Fano and the army came alarmingly close to Biete Medhani Alem and the iron legs of the shelter were hit with bullets.

Priests say water is now seeping through the metal structures and they can hear startling noises emanating from them. Additionally, they say the large metal beams that support the shelters' foundations are no longer firmly grounded.

"These shelters are very concerning to us," says Tesfaye, caretaker of Biete Medhani Alem. "Initially, they were helpful. But now they have made us very scared. Before they put up these shelters, we were worried about the impacts of the rain, but now we are much more concerned about the shelters collapsing. They need to be removed immediately."

In 2019, the French government partnered with Ethiopia and agreed to finance major restoration work at the churches through the French Development Agency (AFD). They compiled a team of international experts - including archaeologists, architects, geologists, hydrogeologist, and conservators - who carried out research studies at the site. According to Louis-Antoine Souchet, the country director for Ethiopia at AFD, this team concluded that rain was the biggest threat to the integrity of the churches and that the entire holy complex, including the trenches, needed to be covered and protected.

Through this Franco-Ethiopian cooperation programme, experts are planning to construct a larger permanent shelter of a different design which could protect the structures from rain. Souchet tells African Arguments that UNESCO has requested new studies to be carried out on the ground to find the best technical solution. Once those are complete, an international tender will likely be launched for the design and construction of the new shelters. The removal of the old metal shelters would not be done before 2025, Souchet adds.

In 2021, the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies (CFEE) implemented "Sustainable Lalibela" with the Ethiopian Heritage Authority and local authorities that provides more short-term interventions for the churches. With AFD funding, the project includes various onsite restoration activities and a training programme for Ethiopian students, professionals, and craftspeople to enhance capacity building in heritage management and conservation.

According to Marie-Laure Derat, the scientific coordinator of Sustainable Lalibela, the project has so far concentrated on "emergency conservation measures and the securitisation and beautification of the accesses to the site," while it has additionally trained and employed about 30 artisans in Lalibela.

These initiatives have provided some reprieve to Lalibela's priests. But caught between iron shelters they believe can collapse at any moment and crossfire from the war between Fano and the federal government, they are concerned about the slow-pace of progress.

"I just hope I don't see these churches get harmed in my lifetime," says Sisay, the priest who cares for St Mercoreos church. "My heart and soul reside in this church."

"Jesus Christ promised Lalibela that these churches will stay erect until the Day of Judgement," he continues, repeating oft-told legends. "The care of these churches has passed from one generation to another for hundreds of years. I don't want to be part of the generation that failed to maintain them. I'd prefer to die."

Jaclynn Ashly is a freelance journalist.

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