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Lalibela Should be Patronized and Renovated by Ethiopian Architects and Engineers

IDEA Editorial                                                                       November 14, 2018


One of the magnificent historical sites in Ethiopia is the town of Lalibela in the north-central part of the country; and the splendid eleven rock-hewn churches in that town are a continuation of Aksumite architecture in the construction of hewn edifices; in Tigray alone there are 126 rock-hewn churches and monasteries, and it is these uniquely Ethiopian buildings, curved out of rocks with amazing mathematical precision and symmetry, that continued in Lalibela and elsewhere in Ethiopia.

Lalibela is the making of the Agaw Zagwe dynasty that emerged in the first half of the 12th century and its first king was Mera Teklehaimanot, and we at the Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA) maintain that the rock-hewn churches were commissioned and built by the respective kings of the Zagwe dynasty and not by the sole initiative of King Lalibela as some pseudo-historians have claimed and assumed. There is no doubt that King Lalibela wanted to transplant Jerusalem unto the Ethiopian soil and it is highly probable that the cartographic design of the town was attributed to him, and it is for this apparent reason that we have names of locales such as Golgotha and Jordan (Yordanos) in Lalibela.

The eleven churches or cluster of rack-hewn edifices are located on either of the River Jordan (Yordanos) that virtually cuts the town into two halves; to the east of Yordanos are Gabriel/Rufael, Beta Abba Libanos, Beta Abba Morqorios, Beta Amanuel; and to the west of the river are Beta Giorgis, Beta Mariam, Beta Danagel, Medhane Alem (Redeemer of the World), Beta Masqal, and Michael (the Archangel). On top of the eleven churches, there is also one other rock-hewn church north of Lalibela and built by one of the kings of the Zagwe named Yemrehane Kristos, and the churches namesake reflects the architecture of the Abuna Aregawi church at Debre Damo monastery in Tigray; incidentally, there is another rock-hewn church in Sekota, Lasta district known as Meskele-Kristos and built by Emperor Kaleb in the middle of the 6th century CE, that is long before the Zagew dynasty was established and the Lalibela churches were constructed.

The above mentioned churches apparently were built to last forever and/or for eternity and to withstand deterioration and wear and tear. So, what went wrong now that they needed urgent restoration and renovation? According to IDEA’s research and findings, the structural damages and degradation that have been identified at the Beta Amanuel and Beta Mariam; and the crevice or rift that is clearly visible on the Beta Giorgis could have been the result of seismic activity or negligence of Ethiopian authorities, or it could be the sum total of both.

The structural problem of the Lalibela churches actually came to the attention of UNESCO in the early 1970s, to the UN organization that apparently recognized the Lalibela churches as part of its world heritage landmarks. Moreover, UNESCO has recognized the tangible and intangible aspects of the churches in 1978 and for this recognition alone the rock-hewn churches are eligible for funds for renovation and repair. Given this reality, thus, the recent Ethiopian Government plea and request to the French Government for redeeming the churches is untenable.

We at IDEA believe that there are more than enough and capable Ethiopian architects and engineers who could take care of Lalibela if indeed the Ethiopian government approaches them and encourages them to repair and renovate the churches and also enable them to extend their fingerprints unto them and reaffirm once again the Ethiopian genius of innovation and creativity; this paramount historical mission should be assigned to Ethiopian architects and engineers and should not be delegated to foreigners, who neither understand nor appreciate the Ethiopian cultural ethos and historical sensibility.

Furthermore, we at IDEA underscore that renovation and/or repair should not be interpreted in its technical sense only. On the contrary, renovation and repair of any Ethiopian landmark should seriously consider Ethiopian sovereignty, pride and self-determination. This consideration, in turn, could uplift the Ethiopian spirit, but only if Ethiopians are inspired and emboldened to take Ethiopian matters into their own hands. This does not mean, however, that Ethiopians should reject anything external and disregard altogether ideas and technology from foreigners to the extent of being xenophobic and isolationist. What we want to advance here is that Ethiopian architects and engineers should patronize and renovate/repair the Lalibela churches (and other landmarks) in order to salute and pay homage to their ancestors, those wonderful Ethiopian architects of late antiquity and the medieval period who constructed amazing engineering fits and in the manipulation and design of granite, limestone, and Tufa rocks . Otherwise, there is nothing wrong in accepting foreign ideas and appropriate technology that could potentially benefit the larger Ethiopian society.

One other option beyond mere involvement of Ethiopian architects and engineers is the collaboration of the Government and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC), not only to renovate and repair but also administer the Lalibela churches, and by extension other world heritages. In point of fact, with the Ethiopian government initiative, Proclamation No. 209/2000 had established the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) and subsequently a four-year conservation plan was laid out in 2006 and was expected to be implemented with the cooperation of the EOTC; unfortunately, however, the planned joint operation for the preservation of the churches was not implemented and as a result, due to lack of commitment or mismanagement the world heritages were not taken care of, and after detecting and recognizing this problem (so it looks), the Director of UNESCO Liaison Office in Addis Ababa, Ms. Ana Elisa Santana Afonso held a meeting on November 5, 2018 with the EOTC delegation led by Abba Tsige Selassie, Chief Administrator of the Lalibela churches.

This IDEA editorial recommends that the Ethiopian government, led by PM Abiye Ahmed and the Ethiopian Parliament, issue a new proclamation for the conservation of Ethiopian landmarks and historical sites by establishing a commission that constitute the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Ethiopian architects and engineers, a committee of Ethiopian scholars (historians, anthropologists, and paleontologists), and the Ethiopian Religious Council Institute. This newly constituted commission should operate under the Prime Minister office and should be accountable to it but it should be allowed by the proclamation to exercise greater autonomy and authority.

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