A Remarkable Feat of Construction
The Church of Debre Tsion is one of the most important rock-hewn churches in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia. Numbering over 120, these churches are remarkable feats of constructions. Carved into sandstone cliffs, often hundreds of meters above the plateau, and in wild and remote locations, many can only be reached up steep paths through narrow ravines or by scaling sheer cliff faces.
The foundation of Debre Tsion is associated with the monk Abuna Abreham, who was a major figure in the ascetic monastic movement behind establishment of remote places of worship in the mountains of Tigray, and probably completed during the reign of King Dawit I (1382-1413). Inside, the church is rectangular in shape, 12.9 meters deep by 7.7 meters wide and high. Its vaulted and domed ceiling is supported by six cruciform pillars with plain capitals.
Deeper in the rock, the church is encircled by a tunnel-like ambulatory. Wall paintings originally covered the whole monumental interior, and despite age and damage, a vast amount remains intact. Painted in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, scenes depict episodes from the lives of local saints.
Urgent Intervention to Halt Water Damage
Continued water infiltration, likely originating in the roof, threatens the integrity of the interior wall paintings and stone. Despite previous attempts to address the issue excess moisture continues to cause severe damage. Beginning in 2021 and through 2022, World Monuments Fund’s team of experts will undertake urgent repairs to the roof of the Debre Tsion, using the techniques and materials developed by WMF at Lalibela.
A notable challenge of the project will be in designing the way in which water is collected and moved away from the vicinity of the church. Training of conservators and craftspeople from the Tigray Bureau for Culture and Tourism will provide an opportunity for the methodologies to be replicated at other rock-hewn churches in the region that face similar challenges.
WMF’s engagement at Debre Tsion is supported by the U.S. Department of State through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation program and the American Embassy in Addis Ababa.