Written by: Lillia McEnaney

Situated in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia holds a rich historical, artistic, and religious heritage. The country is home to of the earliest homo sapiens, the oldest alphabet still used in the modern world (Ge’ez script, or Ethiopic), and over 80 ethnolinguistic groups. With a population of 100 million, Ethiopia is the second most populated country in Africa and is the highest populated landlocked country in the world.

Ethiopia is also home to eight culturally significant UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Askum, Fasil Ghebbi (Gondar Region), Harar Jugol, the Fortified Historic Town, Konso Cultural Landscape, Lower Valley of the Awash, Lower Valley of the Omo, Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela, and Tiya. But, fragile politics and lacking legislation puts these sites at risk.


Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela

The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela came to prominence in the 13th century, and consist of eleven Ethiopian Orthodox churches built out of eleven single monoliths. These churches were built by the Ethiopian people in the Wollo Province under the reign of King Lalibela (c. 1237-1270). This construction effort represented a continuation of an Ethiopian movement towards “embracing [the] ideology of Old Testament devotion” through the building of a “New Jerusalem” after changing sociopolitical conditions in the Middle East halted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

These rock-hewn churches were each built in the shape of a cross measuring 12m by 12m, and are connected by a series of underground tunnels. Intricate carvings of doors, columns, windows, and roofs were complemented with various passageways and caves. The largest monolithic church in the world, Biete Medhani Alem, is the most recognizable of these structures.

Wikimedia Commons. This file has been provided by UNESCO as part of a GLAM-Wiki partnership.

Wikimedia Commons. This file has been provided by UNESCO as part of a GLAM-Wiki partnership.

Once they were completed, these churches facilitated the spread of Christianity throughout modern-day Ethiopia. Though they originally attempted to copy Byzantine architecture, the architects instead developed their own Ethiopic style that highlighted bright, abstract structural elements. The two main types of structures built by the architects commissioned by Lalibela were monolithic churches as well as isolated, carved churches.

Due to their monumentality and unique structure, the Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela became extremely significant pilgrimage site for practicing Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and tourists. In 1978, all eleven churches were designated as World Heritage Sites, making them part of the first twelve UNESCO sites. The criterion for designating them culturally significant are as follows:

“Criterion (i): All the eleven churches represent a unique artistic achievement, in their execution, size and the variety and boldness of their form.

Criterion (ii): The King of Lalibela set out to build a symbol of the holy land, when pilgrimages to it were rendered impossible by the historical situation. In the Church of Biet Golgotha, are replicas of the tomb of Christ, and of Adam, and the crib of the Nativity. The holy city of Lalibela became a substitute for the holy places of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and as such has had considerable influence on Ethiopian Christianity.

Criterion (iii): The whole of Lalibela offers an exceptional testimony to the medieval and post-medieval civilization of Ethiopia, including, next to the eleven churches, the extensive remains of traditional, two story circular village houses with interior staircases and thatched roofs.”

The continued use of the Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela over many centuries demonstrates the importance of this World Heritage Site as a place of significant cultural and religious value to the population of Ethiopia. As a site of incredible value that is still in operation, a balance between access and responsible stewardship is critical.


The Kingdom of Aksum was an ancient pre-Christian Ethiopian civilization that arose in the 2nd and 3rd century AD. Axum was known as the most important marketplace in Eastern Africa, with trade routes reaching across Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean. Today, the most notable evidence of the Axumite Empire’s artistic and historical past is the stone obelisks, or stele, in the modern city of Axum. Erected under Emperor Ezana in the mid-fourth century, these colossal stone monuments mark the burial sites of pre-Christian rulers. The granite blocks reach 20 meters into the sky, and all are topped with a half moon representing the God of the Moon himself. The largest monolith ever known to be created is one of these eleven stele. Today, Axum remains a holy city for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, as many followers believe that the city is the home of the original Ark of the Covenant.

In the late 1800s, British invaders began to remove and traffic Ethiopian cultural patrimony from Axum, Lalibela, and other sites out of the country. These items ended up in auction houses, museums, and private collections. Many of these items are still lost in these museum storerooms and collections due to poor documentation, which makes repatriation difficult.

Wikimedia Commons. This file has been provided by UNESCO (unesco.org) as part of a GLAM-Wiki partnership.

Wikimedia Commons. This file has been provided by UNESCO (unesco.org) as part of a GLAM-Wiki partnership.

Intangible heritage

In addition to the countless archaeological and cultural sites in the country, Ethiopia is also home to a unique and rich intangible heritage. These intangible heritages include religious and artistic activities and festivals, the Ethiopian “semi-rural way of life,” songs, food and drinks, as well as clothing. These traditions are closely interwoven with the architecture and archaeology of the people. By saving tangible cultural patrimony such as the Rock-Hewn Churches and the Obelisks of Aksum, present-day Ethiopian culture is also being protected.


Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela

Threats to the integrity of the Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela in periods prior to the twentieth-century included periodic flooding caused by clogged drainage ditches surrounding the churches. The flooding has presented a risk to the structural stability of the churches, many of which are now considered to be in critical condition. Biet Amanuel in particular, the largest of the churches, is at risk of collapsing in the near future due to this destabilization. All of the churches’ interior paintings, sculptures, and base reliefs have also been deeply impacted by the recurrent flooding, with some showing severe signs of water damage. Still today, many of these structures regularly flood. When this happens, ceremonies and religious observations continue, even if the pilgrims are standing in water.

In the past 20 years, Lalibela has become an urban center with a rapidly growing tourism industry. In 1996, there were approximately 14,184 annual tourists. In 2010, there were 24,000 visitors. And it isn’t just the churches which attract visitors – Lalibela is home to a bustling artisan’s market, which expands every year.

In an effort to combat these changes and threats, temporary shelters now cover most of the churches. While they “impact [the] visual integrity” of the churches, they offer the most protection these churches have seen in centuries.

Two of Ethiopia’s most endangered archaeological sites, Lalibela and Askum, are in heavily populated regions. Lalibela holds 15,000 people, and Axum has approximately 57,000 residents. As a result, cultural heritage legislation must carefully balance local access with responsible stewardship.

Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela

Today, both the Church and the Ethiopian State are responsible for Lalibela, and the surrounding property is controlled and managed by the Lasta District Culture and Tourism Office. But, there is no legal document that specifically protects these churches. The structures fall under the general care guidelines put forth by Ethiopia’s overarching cultural heritage management law, Proclamation No. 209/2000, A Proclamation to Provide for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, which also established the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage [ARCCH].

In 2015, ARCCH, in partnership with UNESCO, published “A Management Plan for the Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela World Heritage Site, Ethiopia.” The plan called for increased responsible management and protection. Specifically, thoroughly “managing [site] boundaries, […] [and] developing strategies for adequate data and information collection and management” are essential first steps. Additionally, ARCCH hopes to implement stronger architectural conservation practices, manage tourism more effectively, and increase overall levels of community engagement.


Prominent Ethiopian museums such as the National Museum of Ethiopia, the Ethnological Museum of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University, the Addis Alem Museum, the Holy Trinity Cathedral Museum, the Patriarchate Museum and Library, and the St. George’s Church Museum support the preservation of the country’s tangible heritage through public exhibitions and outreach. These museums are supported by the independent Ethiopian Museums Support Association.

In 1937, Mussolini’s soldiers, who were occupying Ethiopia at the time, removed and shipped one of the Axum Obelisks to Italy as a “celebration of Mussolini’s 15th year in power.”

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

For years, various political groups and scholars lobbied for the obelisk’s return. In 1947, the Italian government agreed to begin the repatriation process of the obelisk and another looted Ethiopian piece, the Lion of Judah. The Lion of Judah was repatriated in 1967, but the Italian government failed to follow through on their promise regarding the obelisk. Italy claimed that the logistical issues involved in the return made it an impractical project, and they also claimed to lack funds to safely complete the project.

Subsequently, the obelisk stood in the center of Circus Maximus, a busy traffic circle in Rome until 2005. In April 2005, it was returned to Ethiopia as the heaviest piece of airfreight to even be carried. One of the officials who welcomed the obelisk home was Netsannet Asfew, the Ethiopian Sate Minister for Information. He explained the significance of the repatriation to the Ethiopian people: “We have waited a long, long time for this. This is a proud moment for us.” The obelisk now stands in its original place of erection, which is today the Askum World Heritage Site.

Other obelisks from Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea are still in European hands, and their repatriation is still a contested issue.