Lalibela Field School: Creating Opportunities for Learning
In July 2016, sixteen students from New York’s Columbia University and Ethiophia’s Addis Ababa University participated in a field school at the World Heritage Site of Lalibela. Stephen Battle, WMF’s Program Director in Sub-Saharan Africa, shares his perspective on the experience.
The heavens opened and the rain poured down, breaking the drought that had threatened famine in the region. It was the first day of the Lalibela Field School, and the start of a rewarding and memorable experience for myself and the participating students. Although Lalibela is a sacred place in Ethiopia, and probably its most iconic heritage site, only two of the Ethiopian students had been there before; none of the Columbia students had ever visited Ethiopia. We shivered in the rain on our first day, but it could not dampen the enthusiasm of the group.
It is difficult to not be impressed by Lalibela. Perched high in the Lasta mountains of northern Ethiopia, Lalibela sits approximately 2,500 meters above sea level and is surrounded by mountains and high plateaus that rise to over 4,000 meters. Known for the eleven rock-hewn churches found there, the site is remarkable, not only for its antiquity—the churches were hand-carved from rock in the twelfth century—but also because of the sophistication and ingenuity of its design—some of the churches are interconnected by deep trenches and subterranean tunnels.
Until recently, it was difficult to access Lalibela. Over the past decade, however, the number of visitors to the churches, which are still used for worship and ceremonies, has nearly tripled. The purpose of the Field School was to study the effects of this rapid growth on the World Heritage Site and surrounding town. The students, who have backgrounds in heritage preservation and urban planning, carried out close to 100 visitor surveys and met with an array of officials from the local government and church.
The Lalibela Field School was a rewarding, enlightening, and stimulating experience for all who took part, bringing young people from diverse backgrounds together to study at one of the world’s most remarkable heritage sites. Creating learning opportunities for young professionals is an important part of WMF’s mission, because those young professionals are the future promise that the world’s treasures will be preserved.
To learn more about Stephen's experiences in Lalibela, read his account of the opening ceremony at the church of Beta Gabriel Rafael here.