Celebrating Preservation at Beta Gabriel Rafael
One of WMF’s first projects took place at Lalibela, a World Heritage site in the highlands of Ethiopia, in 1965. In 2007, we began another project at Lalibela, this one focused on creating a framework for sustainable and ongoing preservation of the site and its distinctive churches, all hand-carved from rock in the twelfth century.
In late 2015, we completed a pilot preservation project at the church of Beta Gabriel Rafael in Lalibela. In the summer of 2016, an inaugural ceremony was held at the church. WMF’s Stephen Battle reflects on his experience celebrating with the community.
I hadn’t expected to find 3,000 people lining the hillside. By the time I arrived, I had to push my way through the chanting throng to get to the front. The crowd was there to celebrate the completion of preservation work at the church of Beta Gabriel Rafael, one of eleven rock-hewn churches in the Ethiopian city of Lalibela.
Devout Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe that King Lalibela enlisted the help of angels when he created the churches in the twelfth century. The churches are not just stone; they are faith given form. It is moving, humbling, and a little intimidating to work at a site that has so much meaning in peoples’ lives.
The project at Beta Gabriel Rafael was funded by the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. Before work began, the church had been in bad condition. Large cracks in the stone roof had allowed rain to percolate inside eroding surfaces. Several big structural cracks had weakened the columns. Most seriously, widespread erosion had threatened the exterior surfaces of the church. At this church, the stone surface, with its intricate pattern of ancient chisel marks and patina, is the building’s skin, revealing its history and character. When eroded, the stone goes back to being mute, ordinary rock.
I think the crowd on the hillside felt a mixture of happiness and relief that we had finished the project and that it had turned out well. After the ceremony the tabot, which contains replicas of the Ten Commandments carved on stone tablets, would be returned to the church, marking the culmination of the project. Priests and deacons chanted and danced, and women ululated and sang. It was a moving end to a hugely fulfilling and rewarding project at an awe-inspiring site.
Did you enjoy reading Stephen's blog about this Lalibela church? Read his account of the Lalibela Field School, which took place in July 2016, here.