PRESERVING LALIBELA

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(Photo: Anteneh Aklilu)

Ethiopia is characterized by an abundance of tangible and intangible heritage having a vast rich history not only at the continental level but also globally.
Atop of these tangible heritages is Lalibela, which is considered by many as the most jaw-dropping historical site in sub-Saharan Africa. The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are one of the oldest historical and tangible heritage which were cut out of a living rock during the time of King Lalibela, who ruled Ethiopia from his capital Roha, now Lalibela. The churches were curved in the 12th and 13th Centuries. Lalibela rock-hewn churches were also inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1978.
Yet as a result of the many years of constant exposure, Lalibela churches have been facing damages and cracks. Despite several conservation and restoration projects being implemented at the site, the execution has faced numerous flaws.
To mitigate this and other challenges faced at Ethiopia’s heritage sites, a joint declaration on heritage preservation in Ethiopia focusing on the national museum, the national palace, the Lalibela churches and the archives of heritages material was signed on 12th March 2019 between the government of Ethiopia and France.
The heritage cooperation project on the churches of Lalibela thus consisted of supporting the conservation, restoration and enhancement of the historical and cultural value. To paint a clearer picture of this ongoing preservation project, Capital’s Metasebia Teshome reached out to Feven Tewolde, project manager for the Lalibela Project, for an insider’s view on the matter. Excerpts;

Capital: It has been about two years since the agreement was signed between the government of Ethiopia and France; what has been done so far?
Feven: Indeed, a joint agreement to conserve, restore and valorize or enhance the churches of Lalibela was signed. Following this agreement, a feasibility study was undertaken to understand the characteristics of the rock of the churches in order to find sustainable protection.
Thus, for the last two years, a group of leading Ethiopian and French experts were mobilized drawn from different disciplines so as to carry out several diagnoses.
Part of these assessments includes examining the current state of the church and the four existing shelters.
As you know, in 2008, UNESCO built four protective shelters covering five of the churches. These protective shelters were put temporarily for about ten years as better sustainable protection was being looked into.
Since no long-term conservation method was proposed, the vibration and extreme noise caused by the shelters under wind pressure created frustration in the community. The heavyweights of the shelters have been imposed on delicate structures for more than a decade without proper validation from the local community. Due to its heavyweight and lower capacity to resist the maximum wind pressure in the area, lack of scientific monitoring, and alarming signs such as the falling of screws, the local community and church administration were extremely worried that the shelters may collapse and destroy the churches.
The conservation works did not follow best practices, and many locals, clergy members, academicians and conservation experts have expressed considerable concerns about the future preservation of the churches.
Therefore, the aim of this study which took about 2 years instead of one year and a half, was prolonged due to the COVID-19 crisis. The project was undertaken to recommend an alternative protection for the long-term conservation of the churches, to conceive a site restoration strategy adapted respective to the nature of the rock, and deepen the historical and archaeological knowledge of the site.

Capital: What is the current status of the project?
Feven: The feasibility study demonstrated that the rock of Lalibela was of basaltic scoria which is subject to humidity and weathering. Thus, this led to a conclusion that necessitated the need to protect all churches and courtyards.
This led us to three architectural options, which are the; tent option, platform option and canopy option.
Given the outcomes of the different consultations, the canopy option seemed most conducive. The design would easily adapt to the culture and environment and it would follow the shape of the hills of Lalibela. On top of that, both construction and maintenance would involve local materials and resources and were adopted by the local community and the clergy.
The option consists of covering the churches with a waterproof membrane of a light organic bamboo, covered with a strong canvas. This option has been approved by the last steering committee meeting in June 2021. It was also presented to the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO in July; the committee gave its agreement in principle requesting results of different additional studies and final architectural design for final validation.
Given the country’s situation, delays were created in the agenda and among the requested studies, we are currently completing the tendering process for the environmental and heritage impact assessment which will start soon followed by the geotechnical, hydraulic and other necessary studies.
In addition to that, some urgent restoration measures were identified and will be operational in the coming days. These urgent interventions will be covered by the already operational “sustainable Lalibela” project which includes transfer of competence by training local heritage professionals (craftsmen, heritage management, etc.) by also digging deeper into the history of Lalibela through archeological work. This will also be supplemented by a very big enhancement gesture of an international itinerary exhibition which will start in Lalibela and travel to Addis and other big international cities showing Lalibela’s rich history and value to the world.

Capital: Describe in detail, what the Canopy option entails?
Feven: The first step to restoring the church is to ensure that they are covered and avoid repetitive restoration works. Shelters are key elements for this. Based on the principle of the exhaustive coverage of the site, the canopy option was developed following the rejection of several alternative shelter designs such as mast tents and platforms on pillars.
The design execution and maintenance will depend on locally available resources and the dedicated human resources with technology transfer. The execution is not subjected to any imported manufactured goods or industrial process hazards. Hence Ethiopia has a bamboo reserve estimated at one million hectares. This option also has the advantage of continuity of protection of the different groups of churches.

Capital: How has the tendering process been like?
Feven: We had floated the tender three times. On the first tender, the pandemic had stopped us in our tracks whilst the second time, a hurdle ensuing from the country’s conflict in the northern part delayed the process. The current tender is launched for the third time and three proposals from a consortium of both local and international have been received. In a few days’ time, we will choose the awardee and we plan to start the impact studies in May.

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Capital: How has the conflict in the northern part of the country affected the churches?
Feven: As far as I know, there is no direct damage to the churches although it has created delays in our project calendar.

Capital: How is the project working to increase engagement of the local community?
Feven: This project started with a feasibility study in September 2019. From the first day, we started with desiccations with the church administrators and the community. As earlier mentioned, the scientific work was coordinated by the Chief Architect, Regis Martin, and was undertaken by a bilateral team of experts, from archeologists and geomorphologists to architects and engineers working hand in hand with the church administration. This was also a way of transferring skills and exchanging modern and traditional techniques. Training Ethiopian craftsmen and professionals in heritage management and identifying paths to increase tourist attraction are also main goals besides conservation and preservation.

Capital: After all of these assessments, when will the main restoration work begin?
Feven: It will depend on the international bidding process and the period of the overall assessments since we will also need to hire the main architect to do the preliminary design. In addition to that, since it is a World heritage site, we need to fit it into the calendar of the World heritage committee for the final approval of UNESCO based on the final design.
One thing is sure it cannot happen before the 2023 UNESCO’s World heritage committee which is an annual meeting. And after we get full approval we will start the actual restoration and conservation work could start.

Capital: What should we expect from the restoration and conservation works?
Feven: The main goal of this exceptional project is to deliver Lalibela from being dependent on others to be preserved for future generations, once this project will be operational, the idea is to give the key to the local community so that they are self-reliant to preserve this unique site for future generations while enhancing and showing the cultural value to the rest of the World.

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