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LALIBELA, Jul 3 2008 (IPS) - Carved into the rugged mountains of northern Ethiopia, the eleven churches of Lalibela have for centuries remained among the most stunning visions a traveler can encounter.
Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, the ruler of the Zagwe dynasty, commenced construction of the churches following an extended period living in Jerusalem. Following Jerusalem's capture by Muslim forces in 1187, a dream told him to recreate the splendors of that city in Ethiopia. In a tribute to Lalibela's vision and the toil of an unknown number of labourers, the location has lost none of its power to awe even 800 years after its creation.
Among the houses of worship, one finds the Church of the Virgin Mary – the first church to be carved – decorated with lush carpets and tapestries depicting angels, cherubs and seraphim. Prayer rooms hold crosses made out of gold, copper and iron whose intricate designs are fraught with religious symbolism; religious drums known as keberos rest against stone walls.
The Church of St. George, the last to be constructed, is carved in the shape of a giant cross four-stories high, seeking to symbolically represent Noah's Ark. Its spiritual power is such that the walls surrounding it are full of the bodies of pilgrims who, for hundreds of years, have chosen the church as the place to draw their final breath and were laid to rest in crevices in the structure. Lalibela himself is said to have been buried in the Bete Golgotha cathedral.
A complex engineering feat by any measure, the Lalibela churches also possess a sophisticated drainage system that assured that though the churches are cut deep into the surrounding rock, no water remains inside the complex.
"The people expected some sort of beautiful design, not this plastic roof that still holds stagnant water," says Desale Sisay, an Ethiopian Orthodox priest in Lalibela who serves as the keyholder of the Bete Gabriel church. "And this is not fully protecting the churches form showers of rain, or from sunlight."
A sketch of what appears to be an even-more intrusive plan for construction on the site can be seen at a nearby display. The shelter project, which commenced work in 1997, has been controversial since its inception and has come under criticism for what locals views as its lack of appreciation for the importance of Lalibela as a historical place of worship. Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978, that UN body is now responsible for monitoring construction in Lalibela.
"For the Ethiopians this is an important issue, this is a holy place," says Nada Al Hassan, a programme specialist with UNESCO's World Heritage Centre Culture Sector. "We think the that the shelter was built without damaging the site, and it is also reversible and can be dismantled."
Great upheaval, however, followed the breaking of a decorative post on a window and the Bete Amanuel chapel in the complex earlier this year, a slight seemingly doubled by what the local population charges were attempts to hide the destruction on the part of workers by dumping it in a nearby reflecting pool. As a result, Lalibela residents formed a 10-member committee to observe restoration and protection efforts.
"(The covering) was favoured by UNESCO, as it did not require drilling in the rocks in the surrounding areas, which would have been necessary if the winning architectural design were implemented," according to Markus Theobald, the head of the infrastructure section of the delegation of the European Commission in Ethiopia.
"The implemented solution is less aesthetical than the winning architectural design (was), but still much nicer than what was there before, i.e wooden or bamboo scaffolding with tarpaulin," says Theobald. "(We are) not aware of any structural flaws."
Even if residents do feel ill-at-ease with the plans for the site, executed by architects from a nation that fought two wars with Ethiopia and overseen by government bodies in far-away Addis Ababa and Brussels, they nevertheless do seem keenly aware that a lasting solution needs to be found for the protection of Ethiopia's unique heritage.
"It is not beautiful, but it is better than nothing," says Getaye Mengiste, a 35 year-old tour guide and former solder who works at the site. "These churches stayed for a long time with continuous rain and sand. Any sort of protection is essential."
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