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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 February 2007, 16:50 GMT
Fears for Ethiopia's crumbling churches
By Amber Henshaw
BBC News, Lalibela, Ethiopia

As a boy, Mulugeta Melesse and his friends used to play around the ancient rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in the Ethiopian highlands.

One of Lalibela's monolithic churches

Now a man, he guides tourists around the churches that were carved out of living rock by order of King Lalibela at the end of the 11th Century and the beginning of the 12th. Ethiopians believe he was helped by angels.

Over the years Mulugeta has seen the churches, which many Ethiopians consider to be a second Jerusalem, crumble and crack.

The roofs of some of the ancient churches have even started to collapse.

"The churches are faced by problems of rain and sun. The dry season is very long and they get a lot of sun and then they get rained on. The rock is cracking and the rock is changing to soil," Mulugeta said.

Short-term

Mulugeta Melesse.  Photo: Jo Foster
The rock is degrading to soil, says Mulugeta Melesse.
Like many in Lalibela, Mulugeta fears for the future of the churches if long-term solutions are not found.

The European Commission has just started a multi-million euro project to erect four shelters to cover five of the worst-affected churches.

Those that will be covered are Biet Medhane-Alem, Biet Maryam, Biet Masqal, Biet Amanuel and Biet Abba-Libanos.

The project will take a year to complete, but it is also a fairly short-term answer to the problems facing Lalibela.

map

Jannik Vaa, the commission's technical adviser based in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, says the shelters should be a temporary solution, with a maximum 15-year lifespan.

"In the meantime we should carry out a conservation study which would inform us how the rock which the churches have been hewn out of can be treated so that the degradation can be stopped," he says.

'Serious, urgent'

These new covers will replace the corrugated shelters built by Unesco almost 10 years ago. The churches had continued to deteriorate over the past decade.

Church in Lalibela. Photo: Jo Foster
Shelters are being constructed to protect churches from rain damage
Fumiko Ohinata, Unesco's cultural programme specialist in the Ethiopian capital, says the organisation considers the issue "extremely serious and urgent".

"The churches of Lalibela have suffered from exposure to wind, rain and temperature changes.

"Some of the churches have serious structural problems and decay problems. When you look at them you will see many cracks in the walls and the rocks are crumbling. In summary, we think the situation is extremely critical," she said.

The churches in Lalibela are one of Ethiopia's most popular tourist attractions, helping to generate much-needed income for the town.

More significantly, they are still used by Orthodox priests and pilgrims who hope they can be properly restored for future generations


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