Lalibela and the Effort to Conserve the Rock-Hewn Churches
The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela continue to be used for daily worship, receiving huge crowds during holidays and special gatherings. It’s because of this that they continue to be one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ethiopia to this day.
Carved out of stone and connected to each other by long underground tunnels and trenches, Lalibela was added to the World Heritage List in 1978. The main cluster of eleven churches is divided into two groups: a northern group with five churches and an eastern group with another five. Biet Gyorgis however, perhaps the most famous, is an isolated church.
As time has taken its toll, the churches have suffered numerous structural problems. In the 1960s, a team on Italian conservators tried to bring international attention to the importance and fragility of these extraordinary structures – documenting the churches and undertaking stabilization efforts.
In 2007, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) partnered to address the conservation of the site – taking into account its management, presentation and the training of local personnel in sustainable conservation practices for long-term maintenance of the site.
They began maintenance on the site by constructing temporary modern shelters over four of the churches. These temporary shelters prevent rainfall from damaging the structure of the churches. A couple years later, in 2009, WMF and UNESCO commenced work on a pilot project at Beta Gabriel Rafael; one of the uncovered churches in the most urgent need of preservation.
WMF were awarded a grant by the U.S State Department’s Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) in 2012. The grant would help them implement the pilot preservation project at Beta Gabriel Rafael. With use of this grant, the project was successfully completed in December of 2015.
The preservation project for Beta Gabriel Rafael included a new waterproof layer laid on the roof in order to improve drainage and avoid water entering the structure. To make an effort to maintain the historical elements alive, lime-based mortars were used for all preservation worked and methodologies all kept in-line with technical guidelines. Structural repairs have also been completed.
Following the success of the preservation project for Beta Gabriel Rafael, a second grant was award to WMF in 2016. This time the preservation works would focus on the twin-churches of Beta Golgotha and Mika’el at Lalibela. The work on the twin-churches was finished two years later in July 2018.
The Future of Lalibela
There are still issues that need to be highlighted and addressed in and around the site. The increasing urban growth of Lalibela town requires control and the improvement of living conditions near the churches has to be addressed. Infrastructure and facilities near the site play a major role in maximizing the potential of the site.
Lalibela is a magnificent architectural statement – it carries history, tradition, craftsmanship and religion. James Jeffrey, a freelance journalist wrote the following words after a trip to Lalibela:
“My advice to anyone who visits Lalibela would be: don’t rush it. Allow time so you can muster a 6 a.m. visit to see the locals in private worship. Out of everything I’ve seen when visited, there is one enchanting image that stays with me more than any other- something that leaves even the church’s architectural magnificence mute and moot, and transcends all the current fuss over restorations. It’s that old woman slowly making her way down those stones steps each day to pray, as she prepares to leave this all behind. “
On that note, we conclude our three-part series on Lalibela: the historical significance, the architectural marvel and how the preservation is being handled to ensure that these magnificent churches remain long into the future.