AFD - French Development Agency

12/08/2022 | News release | Distributed by Public on 12/08/2022 16:15

France and Ethiopia conduct joint Scientific Operation to Restore the Ancient Churches of Lalibela

Since 2019, AFD has been supporting several actions to preserve and develop the ancient stone-carved Churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Recently, a new project has been signed and an exhibition is on display in the capital until the end of the year.

The eleven churches of Lalibela, carved out of stone in the 13th century, are an extraordinary site that has drawn crowds from around the world. They were hewn from rock and chiselled out, with an extensive system of drainage ditches, trenches and ceremonial passages, some with openings to caves and catacombs.

But they are now as fragile as they are beautiful. Between erosion, seismic activity and human activity, the churches are in danger: French and Ethiopian researchers estimate that if nothing is done, some buildings could collapse within two years.

Protecting precious artefacts

To preserve this living heritage, AFD has financed a series of studies and projects that aim to gain a better understanding of the site, preserve it and also increase the skills of the various local actors involved in its conservation.

The first step in restoration and preservation work, which began in 2009, was to understand the site and its history. Tracing tool marks found on the churches, researchers reconstructed the stonecutters' work and in doing so, highlighted the properties of the rock and its fragility. In close collaboration with their Ethiopian counterparts, French researchers conducted archaeological excavations to trace the history of the mysterious site and its evolution over the centuries.

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Using modern methods to restore a medieval pilgrimage site

The site's name is attributed to King Lalibela, who set out to construct a 'New Jerusalem' in the 12th century, and it has been a pilgrimage site for Coptic Christians ever since.

Time has taken its toll. Emergency restoration works have not only laid bare the structure's vulnerability due to centuries of exposure and changing weather patterns, they have given rise to fresh solutions. To prevent further damage, a canopy made of woven bamboo and anchored in the ground will provide protection.
For experts, it's a compromise, where the protection provided is not total, but allows people to continue to visit.

"The difficulty lies in combining the requirements of conservation with the needs of users and visitors to the site," said Marie-Laure Derat, scientific coordinator of the Sustainable Lalibela Project and Research Director at France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). "One does not conserve a site that is still in use in the same way as we do monuments that are only vestiges of the past."

Paintings and sculptures that have been badly damaged are also being restored.

Community awareness and involvement

The excavation and archeological work has also provided opportunities to educate local communities and tourists alike, in what is called "community archaeology." This "engages heritage conservation professionals and archaeologists in dialogue with communities to highlight the importance of such sites in the interests of conservation," said Marie-Laure Derat. Their participation in archaeological excavations allows them to be not mere spectators, but also actors in the research of their past.

In the interests of sharing such knowledge and developing the skills of local experts, a training program for Ethiopian students, professionals and craftsmen has been deployed by CNRS and the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies (CFEE). So far, some 100 people have already been trained.

To further raise awareness, an exhibition has been developed based on 3D mapping data and knowledge accumulated over the past 10 years on the site.
Using holograms, and models of Lalibela monuments, the exhibition takes visitors through a virtual tour, to see the excavation methods and the royal and Christian dimension of this emblematic site.

Cultural heritage as a driver of development

In line with previous support and at the request of the Ethiopian government and the Ethiopian Cultural Heritage Authority (ECHA), AFD has just granted additional financing of €5 million to develop the capacities of the ECHA and to study a complementary local development program for the city of Lalibela.

"Through this backing, we seek not only to support the design of a sustainable solution for the preservation of this exceptional historical and cultural heritage," said Valérie Tehio, AFD Country Director in Ethiopia. "We also wish to contribute to the economic and social strengthening of the communities of Lalibela, as well as to the development of the capacities of those involved, notably the Ethiopian body in charge of heritage."

"France has considerable experience using cultural heritage as a lever for economic development and this multi-faceted, joint project will enable Ethiopia to benefit from it."