Ethiopia: Rebels take control of world heritage site Lalibela

Mildred Europa Taylor August 06, 2021
The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. GETTY IMAGES

Rebel forces from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region have seized the town of Lalibela, a Unesco world heritage site. Stacked in the heart of Lalibela are 11 spectacular medieval churches that were carved from a single volcanic rock some 900 years ago. The magnificent medieval structures have turned the mountain town into a major attraction site over the years for local and international visitors and pilgrims, especially worshipers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Tigrayan rebels took control of the historic town on Thursday as fighting in Ethiopia’s civil conflict spreads. Thousands have been killed and millions displaced since war broke out last November. In recent weeks, fighting has spread from Tigray into two neighboring regions, Amhara and Afar, forcing about 250,000 people to leave.

“They came in the afternoon, and there was not any fighting. There were no security forces around. The TPLF forces are in the town now,” one Lalibela resident told AFP, in reference to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

The deputy mayor of Lalibela, Mandefro Tadesse, confirmed to the BBC that Tigray rebels had seized the town, adding that residents had to flee although there was no shooting. “This is the world’s heritage, and we must cooperate to guarantee that this treasure is preserved,” Mandefro said of the historic churches.

The U.S. State Department on Thursday called on Tigrayan forces to protect the “cultural heritage” in the town. Other international observers are also concerned. The UN earlier warned of famine in the region due to fighting and the humanitarian situation.

Ethiopia’s communications since the altercations began on November 4 appear to recognize that the country is fighting both a war of guns and identity. The TPLF had been Tigray’s regional government and it is seen as the political organization encapsulating Tigrayan identity. Last November, the TPLF was ousted by federal forces. The government declared victory at the end of that month after seizing the regional capital Mekelle. However, the TPLF kept fighting and retook Mekelle and most of Tigray at the end of June after government soldiers withdrew.

As the conflict spreads to the town of Lalibela, many are concerned about the historic churches. All the churches at the site are elaborately carved and are underground, connected by tunnels and surrounded by rock-hewn trenches. These rock-hewn churches were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

And the construction of these incredible 12th-century churches is all thanks to Ethiopian King Gebre Meskel Lalibela (r. ca. 1181–1221), who, according to his hagiography, carved the churches over a period of 24 years with the assistance of angels. The rock-hewn churches were built in Roha (present-day town Lalibela) and later renamed in his honor.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: August 6, 2021


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