The construction of Lalibela structural rock buildings. Construction of Lalibela structural rock buildings. Special interview with Memeher Gebremeskel. In a mountainous region in the heart of Ethiopia, some 645 km from Addis Ababa, eleven medieval monolithic churches were carved out of rock. Their building is attributed to King Lalibela who set out to construct in the 12th century a ‘New Jerusalem’ after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Lalibela flourished after the decline of the Aksum Empire.
There are two main groups of churches – to the north of the river Jordan: Biete Medhani Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), Biete Mariam (House of Mary), Biete Maskal (House of the Cross), Biete Denagel (House of Virgins), Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael); and to the south of the river, Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercoreos), Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos), Biete Gabriel Raphael (House of Gabriel Raphael), and Biete Lehem (House of Holy Bread).
The eleventh church, Biete Ghiorgis (House of St. George), is isolated from the others but connected by a system of trenches. The drainage ditches were filled up with earth for several centuries before being cleared in the 20th century and disrupted by seismic activity. This has resulted in severe degradation of the monuments from water damage, and most of them are now considered to be in critical condition.
Structural problems have been identified in Biet Amanuel where an imminent risk of collapse is possible, and other locations need to be monitored. Serious degradation of the paintings inside the churches has occurred over the last thirty years. Sculptures and bas-reliefs (such as at the entrance of Biet Mariam) have also been severely damaged, and their original features are hardly recognizable. All of this threatens the integrity of the property.