Lalibela, Ethiopia's 'New Jerusalem', in Mortal Danger Is Mortal Danger

By Highet, Juliet | New African, July 2013 | Go to article overview

Lalibela, Ethiopia's 'New Jerusalem', in Mortal Danger Is Mortal Danger


Highet, Juliet, New African


Lalibela is a small town in northern Ethiopia, built on the side of a mountain in the Lasta district. Originally called Roha, it was renamed Lalibela after King Lalibela, who commissioned a complex of stunning rock-hewn churches there. They were declared a World Heritage Site in 1978. But nowadays, as Juliet Highet reports, there is severe degradation from rain erosion damaging the surfaces of almost all the churches.

LALIBELA IS ONE OF THE MOST EXtraordinary places in the world. It was one of the first of 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites as long ago as 1978, and also one of the first restoration projects sponsored by the World Monument Fund in the 1960s, because Lalibela was, and still is even now, in multiple danger, including that caused by tourism.

What strikes today's visitors the most is the sense of living heritage, the uninterrupted use of its unique churches by Ethiopian Christians from early medieval times. It is a sacred place of devotion to this day, with a large population of priests, nuns and monks, and a place of pilgrimage, especially for Ethiopians.

Its character, ecclesiastical objects, and spiritual practices are an important part of the local community and the country's traditional way of life. The conservation challenge is to safeguard all this.

As a recently published book, Lalibela: Wonder of Ethiopia, points out: "The whole site is unbelievable--a capital city of which the religious edifices were hewn from the rock ... It required not only master builders and craftsmen of great talent, but much more than that, at the highest level, the vision and the will to achieve such an audacious and sophisticated project, to hew out of the rock in a limited amount of time so many statements (of churches), each so different from the others."

One of the churches, Siete Medhani Alem (House of Saviour of the World) is the largest monolithic church in the world. A "monolith" is a large upright block of stone or rock. And Lalibela is most famous for the creation of perfectly monolithic churches--entirely rock-hewn structures in imitation of constructed buildings.

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Although there have been other rock-hewn churches in Ethiopia and also in other parts of the world, certain of those at Lalibela are incomparable. For example, at Abba Libanos (House of the Abbot Libanos), a church appropriately dedicated to a miracle-worker, only the base is attached to the rock, all four sides detached.

More than 200 churches have been hewn from rock in Ethiopia, and 12 of these were created at Lalibela alone, a concentration in location and supposedly in time like no ocher, famous for their unmatched quality of architecture and decoration. So when UNESCO nominated it as a World Heritage Site, it was described as a "unique artistic achievement", due to its originality and boldness in form, scale and variety.

Such sites must have recognised criteria, of which the first for Lalibela was three types of church: rock-hewn monolithic, rock-hewn cave churches, and built-up cave churches. The second criterion is the fact that King Lalibela built his capital as a "New Jerusalem", after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. So as a new pilgrimage destination for its people, it had a "considerable influence on the development of Ethiopian Christianity".

The third criterion identifies the "church ensemble as a unique testament to Ethiopian civilisation". It also recognised the need to conserve the traditional village of Lalibela, specifically its historic circular stone houses called tukuls, built in two stories with an exterior staircase and thatched roofs, many of which are crumbling away.

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Some 654km from Addis Ababa, Lalibela is a small town in northern Ethiopia, built on the side of a mountain in the Lam, district. It was originally called Roha, but renamed Lalibela after King Lalibela, who apparently commissioned the complex.

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