In the ongoing Tigray War in Ethiopia, rebels have taken control of Lalibela that houses monolithic rock-hewn churches from the 12th century.
The Tigray War is proving to be one of the first conflicts in the history of Ethiopia. Recently, the war spilled over from the Tigray region to neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar. This includes Lalibela that contain these ancient churches from 12th and 13th century. Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, has sent forces to quell the rebellion started by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). He has found support from neighboring nations, including Eritrea which has sent its own forces.
There are 11 such churches in Lalibela, each carved out from single monolithic blocks of rock. They were built by King Lalibela, who wanted to create a new Jerusalem after the Muslim invasion. These sites are today recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The war, which has already forced more than 250,000 people from the region, threatens these sites too.
The Tigray War first stirred in 2019, when Abiy Ahmed merged all the major political parties of Ethiopia into a new Prosperity Party. The TPLF refused to join and instead chose to rule the Tigray region independently. The refusal of Ahmed to recognize the 2020 elections in Tigray, as well as the postponing of general elections to 2021 due to Covid-19, triggered the Tigray War in November last year.
So far, numerous reports have claimed ethnic and cultural cleansing in the region. In November, AP reported that the Church of St. Mary of Zion (the most sacred church in Ethiopian Orthodoxy) was stormed by Eritrean soldiers. The report claimed that the soldiers opened fire on the congregators, effectively killing more than 800 civilians. In January, Hiob Ludolf Centre for Ethiopian and Eritrean Studies said that there were reports of Tigrayan manuscripts being looted and sold overseas.