Ethiopia is known for many things. It is home to many world-renowned and stunning natural wonders – most active volcanoes, highest peaks, extreme temperatures, and unique wildlife. It is Queen Sheba’s original home and it is also among the first places ever inhabited by humans. It is, therefore not surprising to discover traces of human’s early existence here – archaeological findings and well-preserved relics – being the cradle of a 3,000-year-old culture.
Among the ancient culture that UNESCO is trying to protect in this part of the world are King Lalibela’s 11 rock-hewn churches called monolithic churches. These are churches carved from a single (mono) block of stone (“lith”). Human interest is taking a lot of tourists in these sites so that many are worried too much commercialism and tourism can damage these amazing medieval structures. These make a lot of people ask the question “Is tourism undercutting Ethiopia’s rock-hewn churches?” Find out more about it from this article by Finlo Rohrer and posted in BBC – Travel Feature.
“After the 1991 fall of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam made Ethiopia more amenable to visitors, hardy tourists started to make their way to the remote town of Lalibela, perched in Ethiopia’s Lasta mountains at 2,600m. The town is home to 11 medieval rock-cut churches so revered, Unesco included them on the original World Heritage list in 1978 – a list of then only 12 sites, which now has grown to 981. Yet as more travellers have followed, some are starting to worry that increased commercialisation is eroding the area’s unique atmosphere.
According to local history, Lalibela’s churches were the grand project of early 13th-century King Lalibela, although archaeologists believe that some of the churches, including the imposing Bet Gebriel-Rafael and the nearby Bet Mercurios, were built five centuries earlier, under the rule of the Axumite Empire.”
The best experience comes to those who will visit the most impressive of the lot, Bet Giyorgis (or St.George) in mid-January when a throng of worshippers in white gather. The church lies in 15m-deep crevice and was carved out of a unique piece of pink, solid rock. It has no bricks, blocks, and with no signs of joints. This was built by digging deep into the outcrop and carving a furrow around the huge rock to sculpt the monolith.
The Tigray region, the seat of Axumite civilization, is also home to unique sculpts of rock-hewn churches such as the Monastery of Debre Damo. Instead of digging deep into outcrops, these monoliths were carved sideways. To get to the church, you need to climb 15m-high using a leather rope. Unlike the Lalibela churches that are more accessible, Tigray monolith churches are harder to access with its mountainous backdrop and the remote setting.
If you are wondering how commercialized these rock-hewn churches are, you only need to check out how much they charge the visitors wanting to go inside for a tour. Realizing the potentials of these UNESCO sites, don’t be surprised if the price has gone up threefold since 2013 from 350 to 950 birr covering 11 rock-hewn churches spread out in four days. This is definitely a lot costlier than other world-renowned tourist sites such as Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums for 16 euros or 415 birr, or London’s St Paul’s Cathedral’ 16 pounds (505 birr). There are even churches that tourists can visit for free – Blue Mosque in Istanbul and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
If it makes you feel better, know that the annual income of these 11 rock-carved churches in the amount of about 40 million birr is being used to sustain church operations and projects (building homes for the homeless and community work) as well as to pay for security, cleaning and maintenance of the churches. “The national hierarchy of the church (also) takes a 20% cut.”
The bottom line is that, this immense revenue is a proof of the “touristification” of Lalibela churches. The marked increase in tourism activity is impinging a lot of changes in its immediate environment, its people and culture. Expect “touristification” to grow and even extend in Tigray. After marveling at the extraordinary and majestic appeal of these churches, and the throng of tourists willing to pay the fees to grab the opportunity to become a part of history, you too will ask: Won’t tourism undercut Ethiopia’s rock-hewn churches?