The church of Yemrehanna Kristos is one of Ethiopia's best-preserved late Axumite churches, and is named for a twelfth-century Zagwe priest-king and saint. It is set in a spectacular landscape of juniper trees located inside a large natural cavern on a hill in northern Ethiopia, predating the famous nearby rock-hewn churches of Lalibela by almost a century. The walls of the building were constructed with alternating layers of recessed timber beams and projecting plastered stone, and the windows are covered by carved cruciform lattices. The interior is divided into a nave and two side aisles by masonry pillars and arches, with a domed sanctuary on the east end. All interior wood surfaces, including the paneled ceilings, are elaborately decorated with carved geometric designs and polychrome. The walls are painted with polychrome murals depicting scenes from the Bible. Priests and hermits still live at Yemrehanna Kristos, and the church is a place of pilgrimage. Over the centuries many pilgrims came to the church to die, and their remains are buried behind the structure.
Yemrehanna Kristos was included on the 2014 World Monuments Watch to raise awareness of this extraordinary site and its importance. The building has generally been well-preserved, but evidence of structural cracks noticed around the time of the Watch announcement led to a thorough assessment of the site.
A timely grant for the church’s preservation
In the fall of 2015, we received a grant from the U.S. State Department Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) in order to carry out a project at the church. The project began in February 2016 with an official ceremony led by His Holiness Abune Mathias, and in the same month stakeholders from the Church, the government, and the local community met to discuss their goals for the initiative. The project will run for 18 months and include the creation of a conservation management plan and a model of the church. In March 2016 a team carried out detailed analysis of the building, using laser scanning technology and movement monitors in order to determine the causes of its structural instability. As the project progresses we will join forces with the Ethiopian Heritage Fund to undertake conservation work on wall paintings inside the church, which many scholars believe to be the oldest surviving wall paintings in Ethiopia. A new access road will also lead to the site from the popular destination of Lalibela, which will increase visitation numbers and prompt the consideration of new management issues.