Lalibela, Ethiopia: UN fears revered Christian and tourist site is in jeopardy

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(CNN) – These are one of the greatest cultural and religious treasures not only in Ethiopia but also in Africa and Christendom: the ancient rock-carved churches of Lalibela.

In a statement released on Friday, UNESCO called for “Compliance with all relevant obligations under international law to ensure the protection of … this precious site by refraining from any act which could expose it to damage, and by taking all necessary precautions to prevent any attempt to looting and looting of cultural property located in the area. “

UNESCO said: “Lalibela is a place of pilgrimage, devotion and peace: it should not be a place of incitement to violence and conflict.

History and unusual architecture of Lalibela

The 11 medieval monolithic cave churches of this 13th-century “New Jerusalem” are in a mountainous region in northern Ethiopia, UNESCO said. They joined the World Heritage List in 1978 and are located approximately 645 kilometers (approximately 400 miles) from the capital Addis Ababa.

The structures were commissioned by King Lalibela of the Zagwe dynasty, which ruled much of the country in the 12th century. Almost impossible to see from a distance, the awe-inspiring feat provided a safe space for Christians to hide from the northern Muslim expansion at the time.
Christianity here dates back several centuries, however. It dates from the 4th century in this region, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest Christian organizations in the world.

The churches were carved out of monolithic blocks below ground level, according to UNESCO. These blocks were further chiseled, forming windows and doors.

Famous churches have been built in a variety of styles.

Some of them have been carved into the wall of the rock, while others stand like isolated blocks, like the Church of St. George, built in the shape of a cross.

A complex and extensive system of drainage ditches, tunnels and underpasses connects the underground structures.

Follow the faithful

In 2016, photographer Tariq Zaidi followed the pilgrims’ route to Lalibela and its surroundings.

He recalled the majesty of the architecture and the beauty of the region, but above all of its inhabitants.

“They are very poor, very humble,” he told CNN at the time. “They come on the pilgrimage, hopefully once in a lifetime if they can afford it. Lots of people have crossed the country on foot, with almost nothing with them.”

Zaidi described the local community coming out to help the pilgrims, feed them and even help them wash their feet.

“It’s very beautiful, poetic – even romantic – in a way, very little in our world is,” Zaidi said. “They all support each other.”

CNN’s Sara Dean and Forrest Brown contributed from current reporting, and Errol Barnett and Thomas Page contributed from previous CNN Travel articles.


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