A tender has been released by the Ethiopian Authority for Research and conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) to help preserve eleven monolithic World-Heritage listed churches. The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia were constructed between the 12th century and the 13th century under the instruction of King Lalibula and are a place of pilgrimage for Ethiopians and tourists alike.
The proposed project, which was published in the Ethiopian Herald and closes on 26 March, involves creating steel structure shelters for the free-standing churches, which are carved out of reddish-pink volcanic rock. Located approximately 150km east of Lake Tana in Ethopia, the religious buildings boast an extraordinary high level of architectural detail, particularly on the windows and doors.
With the churches grouped into two main clusters, the site has 7 religious buildings embedded into the rock and 4 free-standing structures. It also houses Medhane Alem, the world’s largest rock-hewn building, which contains 72 pillars. Part of the site is also located underground, with various narrow passages, causeways, steps and tunnels situated in between the churches.
The current preservation project comes after recent attempts by the European Commission to protect the religious site. Erected in 2008, large metal shelters were constructed to protect five of the most vulnerable and damaged churches from further deterioration resulting from tourism and humid weather conditions. However, these measures were only seen as a short-term plan as the shelters are currently due to last for 15 years.
First appearing on the World Heritage List in 1978, there have been various attempts by UNESCO to look at the best way in which to preserve the holy structures. As part of their participation in the European Union-funded shelter projects, the organisation carried out two assessment missions to the area in 2004 and 2005 to gather data on the churches. The UNESCO team highlighted the need to tackle the effects of humidity on the churches, something which, according to the organisation, steel structures alone cannot solve.