Lalibela: Ethiopian holy city mired in protests and controversy

Lalibela, Ethiopia – The mediaeval Ethiopian town of Lalibela is one of the country’s most famous and serene settings, beloved by tourists and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians alike for its concentration of rock-hewn churches.

But the usual reverence and spiritual tranquility pervading this beguiling location, remotely perched at an altitude of 2,630 meters in the Ethiopian Highlands, has lately been disturbed by locals protesting what they see as disregard and neglect of one of the country’s most holy institutions.

“They were meant to be renovated after five years, but still nothing has happened,” 37-year-old Daniel Fethi, who works as a tourist guide, says of giant protective screens erected 10 years ago by international donors to protect churches from the erosive effects of rain and sunshine.

“People are worried about them damaging the churches. But the most significant problem is the beauty of the churches being hidden. It’s a holy place: instead of going to Jerusalem, people come here,” Fethi said.

In the early morning light, white-robed worshippers come to offer prayers, petitions and mournful chants at the imposing churches – several are in excess of 10 metres tall – precisely carved and minutely decorated beneath the ground, amid underground galleries and open trenches, passageways and rooms, all of it excavated out of the rock.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978, the cluster of 13 churches are one of Ethiopia’s most popular tourist destinations, bringing much-needed revenues and employment opportunities to Lalibela.

Concerns have however, been raised regarding conservation and management of revenues generated from the monuments, often dubbed as an unofficial eighth wonder of the world.

The role of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which gains revenue from the churches, has come in for criticism.

“It’s a bit shocking what they have done,” Marie-Laure Derat, who leads an international team researching the origins of the site, says about recent repairs at Bet Mikael and Bet Golgotha churches.

“It’s not restoration, they haven’t even used the right colors. The work doesn’t look like it will last for long,” said Derat, who visited Lalibela last month.

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