Ethiopia's famous World Heritage Site occupied by rebels

Ethiopia’s famous World Heritage Site occupied by rebels. Image credit: AdobeStock

Ethiopia’s famous World Heritage Site occupied by rebels

(Partner Content) Also known as one of the most popular UNESCO sites in Ethiopia, the Lalibela rock churches were recently overtaken by Tigray rebels.

Ethiopia's famous World Heritage Site occupied by rebels

Ethiopia’s famous World Heritage Site occupied by rebels. Image credit: AdobeStock

Rebels from the Ethiopian region of Tigray captured the ancient city of Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The city of Lalibela was once known as a large and prosperous area that was claimed to be the “second Jerusalem” thanks to the legendary King Lalibela. During the 12th century, this Christian king ordered his people to build a new Jerusalem that consisted of 11 churches.

Although most churches are stand-alone buildings or carved into cliffs, King Lalibela took it one step further and made rock-hewn churches straight into the ground. The river in Lalibela still bears the name Jordan as a nod to the religious site. 

These interconnected churches provided a safe space for the king’s people to pray without fearing an invasion from invaders, and ultimately, became a famous attraction. In fact, thanks to its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, many tourists have obtained their Ethiopia visa online just to see these churches!

Unfortunately, these ancient sites are in trouble. The Tigray War, which started in November 2020 in Ethiopia’s north region, originally began as an armed conflict between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (also known as the TPLF) and Ethiopia’s national defense force.

In recent months, the fighting has spread into the neighboring regions of Afar, and Amhara, where the famous Lalibela churches are located. 

After a swift takeover, the UNESCO World Heritage site was seized by Tigray rebels on August 5th.

Lalibela’s deputy mayor, Mandefro Tadesse, stated, “This is the world’s heritage, and we must cooperate to guarantee that this treasure is preserved.” 

The United States, United Nations, and other governments have spoken out about the conflict, calling on the rebels to respect the cultural heritage and end hostilities.

Echoing these sentiments is Amhara deputy president Fanta Mandefro, who said, “It’s beyond imagination to describe the current situation the displaced people are living in. It’s the rainy season, the conflict is continuing, it’s nonstop… The government is trying to defend and to stop the TPLF but it is very difficult.”

Other UNESCO sites caught in crossfire

The churches of Lalibela aren’t the only World Heritage Sites that are occupied by the Tigray rebels.

The town of Aksum, located in the Tigray region, was once a popular spot for tourism until the war broke out at the end of 2020. The town was known as the historic capital of the Aksumite Empire, with a handful of historic relics and monuments that have stood the test of time. 

The most famous attractions in Aksum are the steles and obelisks, some of which are 1,700 years old. These steles are a symbol of the Ethiopian people’s identity and can be found in the Northern Stelae Park.

The Fasil Ghebbi Fortress, located in the Amhara Region (the same region where the Lalibela churches are found), once served as the home of Ethiopian emperors during the 16th and 17th centuries. 

The entire complex of castles, palaces, and temples behind 900 meter-long fortress walls is distinguished by its unique characteristics. Reflecting a variety of cultures and styles, the fortress city was influenced by Nubian, Indian, Arab, and Baroque architecture. 

Which areas of Ethiopia are safe?

Although Tigray rebels may control the northern regions at the moment, there are many places in Ethiopia (both UNESCO World Heritage Sites and otherwise!) that are safe to visit.

Take, for example, the fortified historic city of Harar-Jugol. Often simplified to just Harar, this city goes by many other names, such as ‘the city of saints’ to ‘the open-air museum.’ 

Harar is so famous that many locals even consider it to be the fourth holiest city in Islam, after Mecca, Jerusalem, and Medina. The city has more than 80 mosques and 100 shrines, as well as a unique style of architecture for its residential buildings. 

Those looking to get in touch with nature (or archaeology) should consider the Lower Valley of the Omo. If the name looks familiar, that’s because it was the site where archaeologists found the jawbone of an Australopithecus man that was estimated to be some 2.5 million years old! Thanks to its status as an archaeological wonderland, this region was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. 

Another spot worth mentioning is the sprawling Mago National Park, located in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region and some 140 kilometers from Omo River. This national park is home to over 100 mammal species, although it is most famous for the huge herds of buffalo that roam the plains. 

Last but certainly not least is the small town of Yirga Alem in the southern part of Ethiopia. Also known as Diko Dalle to locals, this town is close to the ancient rock carvings of Manchiti and the epic Yabelo Wildlife Sanctuary.