Lalibela's Fragile Churches

By Boukhari, Sophie | UNESCO Courier, July-August 1998 | Go to article overview

Lalibela's Fragile Churches


Boukhari, Sophie, UNESCO Courier


Modern tourism is a mixed blessing for an extraordinary complex of medieval churches hewn from the living rock of the Ethiopian highlands.

'A day's walk from Imbra-Christo(1), there are buildings that to my mind are unlike any to be seen elswhere in the world and in such great number. There are churches hewn entirely out of the living rock, which is sculpted with great ingenuity." Francisco Alvarez, the chaplain of an early sixteenth-century Portuguese diplomatic mission to Abyssinia, hesitated to say more about the wonders he had beheld in Lalibela. Had he found the words, he thought, no one would have believed him.

Lalibela is a medieval monastic complex perched at an altitude of 2,700 metres, where the sky meets volcanic rock that solidified as it flowed down the mountainside. It is a holy city inspired by a dream, which may explain its airy grace and the awe visitors feel when they behold it. Legend has it that King Lalibela was born in Roha, on the site of the little town of 10,000 inhabitants which today bears his name, some 700 kilometres from Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. At his birth, a swarm of bees enveloped him, thus giving rise to his name, which means "the bees know he will be great." During Lalibela's childhood the throne of Ethiopia was occupied by his brother who, fearing the oracle's words would come true, poisoned him. The young prince fell into a coma that lasted three days. This "near-death experience", as it would be called today, was regarded as a miracle. God had Lalibela brought up to heaven and ordered him to have churches hewn out of the living rock. In the early twelfth century, when Christians despaired at seeing Jerusalem fall into the hands of the Muslims, Lalibela came to the throne and had eleven monolithic churches carved out of the pink tufa.

French archaeologist Francis Anfray, who has spent thirty-two years in Ethiopia, says, "This imposing complex of churches is the only one of its kind in the world," which is one reason why Lalibela is on UNESCO's World Heritage List. Another is that it's a living site where 350 priests, 250 deacons, 450 monks and 400 students still work, study and worship. The religious services held there have not changed in 800 years. Ethiopia's Orthodox Christians consider it a second Holy Land. The local stream is even called the Jordan and there is a mountain named Mount Tabor. Ethiopia's leading pilgrimage site, Lalibela sometimes welcomes 20,000 to 50,000 believers at a time, especially during the peak Christmas, Epiphany and Easter seasons. Many of them trek to the complex on foot.

A deteriorating site

The churches have deteriorated over the centuries, but by and large they have withstood wars, invasions and the torrential rains that drench the highlands from June to September. But as the twentieth century draws to a close, Lalibela's rock churches face new threats. They will need the protection of Egzia Beher, the Ethiopian Christians' word for God, to survive the expected wave of tourists. "The government wants Lalibela to attract as many visitors as possible," says Jara Haile Mariam, director of cultural heritage at the culture and information ministry. The goal is to help offset the area's extreme poverty. Tarja Laine, of Finland, has carried out a detailed study of the site and co-ordinates a development project managed by the Finnida cooperation agency. "The environment is extremely eroded," she says. "It will not support any more forestry or farming. Tourism is the only way for the people to upgrade their living conditions."

Right now, most of the population lives below the poverty line and 97 per cent suffers from malnutrition. The infant mortality rate is 153 per thousand and 68 per cent of the inhabitants can neither read nor write. One adult in three is unemployed and most of the rest eke out a living selling firewood or as day labourers. The churches are the town's only real source of wealth.

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