Heritage, Tourism, and Urbanization in Lalibela, Ethiopia

July 23 - July 31, 2016

Led by Erica Avrami and William Raynolds

The workshop is conceived as a precursor to a Fall 2016 Advanced Studio (joint HP/UP) that will evaluate the change and urban growth around the Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela (a World Heritage Site) since international efforts to conserve the churches first began in the mid-1960s. The workshop is intended to provide an assessment of current conditions surrounding the site. Specific objectives include: A rapid survey to characterize and assess relationships among the protected heritage site, buffer zone, and growing urban landscape; meetings with stakeholders (government, religious community, tourism industry, university, etc.) to evaluate perspectives and visions for the future of Lalibela; the identification of key issues that may be positively or negatively impacting the heritage values of the site and the long-term quality of life within the Lalibela community. Deliverables of the workshop include an illustrated report of findings as well as the survey data.

To learn more, click here.

To view the preliminary report, click here.

A preliminary report from Lalibela, Ethiopia.

The smell of roasting coffee banished the cold and fatigue as the field survey team returned from collecting data at the height of rainy season. The woman tending to the beans lifted her pan from the brazier and invited each person to remove any dripping rain gear before wafting some of the smoke towards his or her nose, initiating the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. In such moments of calm, the team could begin to process what they had seen at Lalibela.

The rock hewn churches of Lalibela are legendary. Carved by hand into thick bands of volcanic tuff, these monolithic structures are fixtures of a “New Jerusalem” which has beckoned to Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims for over eight hundred years. Among the first sites ever inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, these churches also attract increasing numbers of tourists from around the globe. Understandably, they feature prominently in the recent plans of the Ethiopian government to develop its tourism industry.

During the course of a summer Studio X, eight GSAPP students traveled to Lalibela to explore how the site and the surrounding community have responded to increased visitation and development. Representing the faculties of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, they worked closely with a representative of the World Monuments Fund as well as faculty and students from Addis Ababa University’s Chair of Conservation of Urban and Architectural Heritage. GSAPP students collaborated directly with their Ethiopian peers to deploy a series of electronic surveys, to speak to a range of stakeholders about the management issues at Lalibela, and to gather baseline data about the experience of different user groups on site as well as the state of visitor infrastructure surrounding the churches.

Fueled by additional rounds of the coffee ceremony as well as long conversations over shared meals, the joint team grappled with the intricacies of safeguarding the architectural masterpieces of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church while at the same time meeting the needs of the surrounding community. Their efforts resulted in a new geodatabase and a preliminary report, providing insight into the overlapping and occasionally opposing needs of different parties and serving as the point of departure for an HP/UP Advanced Studio that will expand on these topics in Fall 2016.