ILUCIDARE will run a workshop in stone conservation of rock-hewn churches in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. The workshop will bring together cultural heritage practitioners from two regions of Ethiopia where rock-hewn churches are most prevalent: Tigray and Amhara. It will also include cultural practitioners from Eritrea, which borders Tigray and shares the same tradition of rock-hewn architecture.
The diversity of cultural heritage in Africa is extraordinary. No other region of the world has such diverse cultural heritage. Ethiopia alone has over 70 ethnicities. The rate of change in Africa is very rapid. Climate change, poverty, economic liberalisation are driving rapid demographic and social change. More and more people are moving to cities. As Africa changes, the social, cultural and economic fabric that maintained diverse cultural heritage is being rapidly eroded. Africa’s heritage is uniquely threatened because so much immovable cultural heritage is made of ephemeral materials; earth, wood, grass. As the systems and context that maintained cultural heritage are weakened, so it quickly disappears.
Tigray is a case in point. The region has over 200 rock-hewn churches, many of which are very ancient. But whilst these are valued locally, they are not well known outside the region and barely figure in the country’s outward facing cultural narratives. The vast majority of donor funding goes towards a few World Heritage Sites in Ethiopia, principally Lalibela.
On the occasion of this first visit to Ethiopia, the ILUCIDARE team was welcomed by the University of Mekelle Department of Heritage Conservation and Management and Institute of Paleo-Environment and Heritage Conservation.
The discussion highlighted training issues for students at the university with a need to combine practical demonstrations and fieldwork with theoretical knowledge.
The rich cultural heritage of the region, which counts not only centuries old churches but also manuscripts, is mainly managed by church committees and local priests who would benefit from more training in conservation and maintenance.
The coaching session itself started with exploration of various sites to understand the main threats, needs and opportunities to design the ILUCIDARE capacity building session in 2020. The locations visited were selected on the basis of their relative ease of accessibility and relevance of the churches to the project objectives.
The ILUCIDARE team (Aziliz Vandesande - KU Leuven, Stephen Battle - WMF, Pablo Longoria - WMF, Simon Warrack - WMF) together with local experts Fkereselase Sifir, Dawit Tsadik and Mikiyas Gebresilassie visited churches in the area of Hawzen / Megab Village: Wukro Cherkos, Mariam Yerefeda, Degum Selassie, Maryam Korkor, Abreha We Atsbeha, Abuna Abraham (also known as Debre Tsion).
Abuna Abraham church (also known as Debre Tsion) is likely to be the location for the upcoming capacity building.
Accessible after a 40-minute hike / climb), with six massive free-standing pillars, this large rectangular and impressive 14th-century church is known for its diverse architectural features, including decorated cupolas, bas-reliefs and carved crosses on the walls and ceiling. It also has beautiful, though faded and damaged, 16th-century murals. It sits like a fortress on a hill about 500m south of Dugem.
The capacity building, with hands-on training on site, will focus on consolidation of stone deterioration by linking traditional local techniques with the best science available for sustainable interventions. Three local participants will receive expert training to become master-trainers and ensure the sustainability of the initiative. Involvement of professionals, as well as local religious leaders aims at setting up a maintenance protocol so that damages to the churches can be prevented or dealt with.