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Monday, December 4, 2023

“The sacredness which protected the site and the city of Lalibela has been shattered”

On November 9, 2023, the Ethiopian federal army regained control of Lalibela in Amhara, after the departure of the local militia who had previously seized it. These clashes have raised strong fears about the churches of this holy Orthodox city, listed as UNESCO World Heritage since 1978. Researchers Marie Bridonneau and Marie-Laure Derat, co-directors of the “Sustainable Lalibela” project, are making the update on the situation of the site and their conservation. Interview.

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The recent clashes between the Ethiopian army and the Amhara Fano militias in Lalibela have raised strong fears for the city’s Orthodox churches, listed as UNESCO World Heritage since 1978. These buildings built in the rock at the beginning of the 13th century were not hit directly, but the fighting came very close and forced a halt to conservation work.

In addition to being a sacred place, the site was one of Ethiopia’s main tourist attractions until the beginning of the Tigray war in 2020. Researchers Marie Bridonneau and Marie-Laure Derat are co-directors of the “Sustainable Lalibela” project, implemented by the French Center for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. The project aims to train local workers to carry out conservation work.

RFI: Are these conflicts a new threat for the churches of Lalibela?

Marie Bridonneau: That Lalibela is integrated into the recent conflicts which have affected northern Ethiopia and especially Tigray is a reality. What changes with the fighting, which took place in the second week of November, is that it took place in the town of Lalibela itself. That’s very new. When the Tigray Defense Forces militarily controlled Lalibela in 2021, all the forces present respected this heritage, especially as a sacred place. There were a whole bunch of procedures put in place by the belligerents to protect the churches. There had never been fighting in Lalibela before. This is quite the difference from what happened the second week of November, when a heavy weapon was placed on the mountain which immediately overlooks the site, a few dozen meters from the churches. There is also talk of a few bullets hitting the protective shelters of churches, which testifies to immediate proximity. What was certainly shattered was this sacredness which protected the city and the site.

Does this mean the site is more threatened than before? Can it be deliberately targeted?

Marie Bridonneau: We can say that the conflict in the Amhara region in recent months is a low-profile conflict, that it is rarely reported, even in Ethiopia. I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to target Lalibela and destroy it. On the other hand, deploying fights in the city to attract attention is more of a possibility. The effect that such fighting in Lalibela can have, it will necessarily be stronger, because it is a sacred place. There is a sounding board.

What are the main risks that fighting poses to churches?

Marie-Laure Derat: As for the vibrations generated by combat, it is difficult to estimate the risk. These churches are fragile anyway. So, we can think that it could have effects. At the same time, they have existed since the 13th century and have seen other conflicts. For the moment, we think more about the populations and the dangers they face than about the churches themselves. There were deaths on site.

What state are the churches in today and what is the “Sustainable Lalibela” conservation project that you lead?

Marie-Laure Derat: Like any heritage site, the churches of Lalibela see the effects of time. A particular dimension of this site is that the churches are entirely dug into the rock. The first danger for the churches of Lalibela is erosion linked to the climate, particularly the rains. This is the reason why these churches were very early placed under shelter to be maintained in good conservation conditions. We intervene to find coatings capable of filling certain cracks, while maintaining the rock-like appearance of the site.

The idea is also to train craftsmen and workers on site who are able, on their own, to maintain the site in good condition. Training began in 2021. We trained a whole team of workers who are now almost autonomous. Recently, as the city was not accessible to the teams based in Addis Ababa and Paris, the local teams worked independently, just in telephone or internet connection with the site managers. This made it possible to continue work on site.

So the fighting did not call into question all the conservation approaches?

Marie Bridonneau: We must differentiate the periods. Tensions in the Amhara region between the Ethiopian army and local and regional Amhara forces have been quite high since the summer. The site is difficult to access from Addis Ababa for security reasons, but there has been almost no interruption in work since August. But, during the phase of fighting from November 8 to 12, work was interrupted, people were hiding in their homes. A minimum level of security is required on site for activities to resume.

Marie-Laure Derat: The objective of the project is also to preserve the manuscripts which are still found in the churches of Lalibela, in particular by digitizing them. We started this work this year, but it was also interrupted due to the conflict.

How does the rest of the work look like, given this context?

Marie Bridonneau: It’s difficult to plan for the future. Due to the war in Tigray since 2020, we unfortunately have some experience working in a conflict context. We have become accustomed to adapting to the context and reacting to it as accurately as possible. Very concretely, at the moment in Lalibela, we are trying to relocate certain training activities to Addis Ababa, to bring colleagues from Lalibela to give them breathing room. Our project only makes sense if it is useful to the local communities in Lalibela. This is not a research project simply for the sake of church research. We want to provide support, activity, and remuneration for the people who work within the framework of this project. It’s about finding ways to continue to be useful to our colleagues and collaborators in Lalibela.

Pilgrims praying at St. George's Church in Lalibela.
Pilgrims praying at St. George’s Church in Lalibela. Getty Images – Buena Vista Images

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