- Get Involved
- About Us
- Our Projects
- The Watch
- Dig Deeper
ROCK-HEWN COPTIC CHURCHES
Preserving a unique rock-hewn architectural complex
Lalibela is located approximately 600 km north of Addis Ababa in the Amhara Region, situated at an altitude of 2,500 metres. In its center lies a unique complex of 11 rock-hewn churches cut out of the living rock some 800 years ago. Their construction is attributed to King Lalibela (1167-1207), of the Zagwe dynasty, who attempted to create a new Jerusalem on African soil, accessible to all Ethiopians. Even the names of Lalibela’s features echo those of Jerusalem: the river Jordan, the Golgotha, and the Tomb of Adam. The churches are still used for daily worship and special ceremonies, receiving pilgrims and large crowds during holidays such as Christmas and Easter. The churches, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1978, are sculpted out of solid volcanic rock and are often connected by long underground tunnels and mazes. The main cluster of 11 churches located in the village center is divided in two groups: a northern group with five churches and an eastern group with another five, while Biet Gyorgis, perhaps the most famous, is an isolated church.
HOW WE HELPED
In the 1960s, one of the first projects undertaken by WMF was at Lalibela. A team of Italian conservators documented the churches, undertook stabilization efforts, and worked to bring international attention to the importance and fragility of these extraordinary structures. Since 2007, UNESCO and WMF have partnered to address the conservation of the site, its management, presentation, and the training of local personnel in sustainable conservation practices for the long-term maintenance of the site. A goal of the project is to demonstrate that shelters are not required on the site, as sustainable solutions can be found that will allow the churches to be viewed as free-standing structures as originally intended. Currently, new protective shelters have been placed over four churches. While this may mitigate some water damage at the site, it changes the view of the churches and does not necessarily address the systemic problems at the site. To date, WMF and UNESCO have completed archival research, photogrammetry and laser scanning of all the churches, GIS of the site, preliminary assessment of the state of conservation of the churches, and environmental and physical monitoring of one of the churches to develop a clearer understanding of environmental changes and their impact on the structures. WMF is collaborating on the documentation efforts with the Zamani research project of the University of Cape Town. WMF held a training course at Lalibela in summer 2012, which included classroom sessions, field activities and site visits. A pilot project will be carried out at one of the churches in most urgent need of repair, Biet Gabriel Rafael, in late 2012. The training program participants will develop and test a range of repair and preservation techniques that can eventually be applied across the entire site.
WHY IT MATTERS
The final aim of this project is to develop a site management plan for this World Heritage site and to demonstrate a locally sustainable approach to its conservation and maintenance, avoiding the expensive and intrusive approach of the high-tech shelters recently built at four of the churches. Methodologies for the maintenance and conservation of the structures will employ traditional materials, so that these tasks can be managed and implemented locally. For this reason, the project is accompanied by capacity-building activities and training for local personnel to create local technical expertise for long-term management and protection of the site.
3D Laser Scanning of the Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia
Animations of 3D laser scanning of the Churches of Lalibela. A project of WMF in collaboration with the Zamani Initiative of the University of Cape Town, overseen by Prof. Heinz Ruther (video produced by Christopher Held, UCT, 2009).