An old town in the remote mountainous region of Ethiopia was renamed Lalibela, after a late 12th to early 13th century king. He wanted to build a Christian city — a new Jerusalem — as his capital and even renamed the river as the River Jordan. The history and legends are uncertain, but he may have built at least the first of 13 churches, complete with connecting tunnels and catacombs, all carved from solid, seamless red volcanic rock over a dark gray basalt. Four churches are free-standing, attached only at the base, while the rest have carved facades. The hard work of carving solid rock is said to have been aided by angels, who joined the laborers by day and worked all night. A traditional village surrounds the church structures; of the 6,000 inhabitants, 1,500 are priests.
The fourth episode of “Patrimonito’s World Heritage Adventure” cartoon series shows local communities and young people at Lalibela.
Christianity was established early in Ethiopia. Between 330 C.E. and 550 C.E. Syrian influences brought the use of ritual objects to the religion. Today, every member of the clergy carries a handcross at all times. These crosses, made from a copper alloy, are used for processions and festivals in Lalibela. When carried, cloth streamers are attached to the brackets at the base of the crosses. The priests and the crosses are sometimes sheltered by canopies of silk and velvet, a tradition that is stlll very much alive today.
Cross pendants have been worn for centuries by Orthodox Ethiopians as a reflection of their faith. European coins were sometimes melted down to make the pendants.
These are from mid-20th century and are worn by people around the country.
Beyond the structural well-being of the churches and the usual consequences of rain, wind, and temperature changes on buildings, these sites are affected by development and urbanization. UNESCO effectively advocates for the protection and renovation of the traditional circular earthen houses surrounding the churches. Lalibela is part of the World Heritage Earthen Architecture Program (WHEAP). Everyone involved, from local people to international organizations, works to ensure a balance between growth and preservation.
Here are three-dimensional animated images of the buildings, which were scanned with lasers to create these models. A project of the World Monuments Fund, in collaboration with the Zamani Initiative of the University of Cape Town.
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