A project to conserve Ethiopia’s oldest wall paintings, which experts believe date to around 1100 or soon after, is due to begin this month. They are in the church of Yemrehanna Kristos, a full-sized building constructed inside a cave in the Lasta Mountains at an altitude of 2,700m. The cave is above a valley of juniper trees and, until recently, could only be reached by a day’s journey on foot or mule fr om the town of Lalibela, in northern Ethiopia. The church’s interior is so dark that international specialists did not note the paintings’ existence until the 1990s; the first published account was in 2001.
The London-based Ethiopian Heritage Fund, with support fr om the World Monuments Fund, is undertaking the project. The conservation team consists of two British specialists, Lisa Shekede and Stephen Rickerby; the latter describes the paintings as being in a “highly vulnerable and threatened condition”.
Yemrehanna Kristos, a king of the Zagwe dynasty, ruled from around 1087 to 1127, and the church was built during his reign or shortly afterwards. Behind the church, deeper into the cave, lie the bones of thousands of pilgrims who are said to have travelled from as far as Egypt, Palestine and Syria to die. Priests and hermits still live on the ledge of the cave. A road from Lalibela to a location relatively near Yemrehanna Kristos has recently been completed.
The church, which is 13 metres long and eight metres tall, is a fine example of post-Axumite architecture, built of alternate layers of timber and plastered stonework that give it a striped appearance. Tradition has it that the wood came from Egypt and the gypsum from Jerusalem. Specialists including Jacques Mercier, from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, and David Phillipson, from the University of Cambridge, are convinced that the wall paintings are part of the original building. The Ethiopian Heritage Fund calls them the oldest wall paintings in the country.