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Sacred Landscapes of Tigray

Date of Submission: 02/02/2018
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Culture and Tourisim of the Republic of Ethiopia
State, Province or Region:
Tigray Regional State
Ref.: 6301

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


Tigray is home to 121 rock-hewn churches, believed to represent the single largest group of rock-hewn architecture in the world. Eighty of these churches, dating from the 5th to 14th centuries AD, as well as a small number of masonry-and-timber built churches, which include some of the oldest timber structures surviving worldwide (6th – 10th centuries AD), are located in the Sacred Landscapes of Tigray. The proposed serial nomination consists of three separate zones containing groups of rock-hewn churches in spectacular natural landscapes located in Mehakelegnaw and Misraqawi Zones inthe eastern half of Tigray Regional State, in the north of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The Sacred Landscape of Gheraltalies to the north west, consisting of a mountain massif to the west of Wukro, north of the regional capital of Mekele.The Sacred Landscape of Tembienis a mountain range lying to the south east of Gheralta and to the east of Mekele. The Sacred Landscape of Atsbi is an upland area to the east of Gheralta, on the eastern edge of the Ethiopian highlands, with flat-topped mountainsor hills and deep-incised valleys.A significant number of churches have wall-paintings and many retain treasures in the form of manuscripts, portable paintings and liturgical objects, including examples which have survived from the Middle Ages, especially in churches which form the core of living monasteries.

The rock-hewn churches in these three areas are almost entirely sculpted into Ambaradam Formation, Adigrat Sandstone and Enticho Sandstone. The physiography or landscape is an intimate expression of the underlying geology. The spectacular landscape of Geralta, Tembien and Atsbi. is an expression of the geological and geomorphological processes at regional and local scales. Understanding the geology and associated long and short-term processes is a prerequisite for future monitoring and conservation of the monuments.

Gheralta Sacred Landscape

The Gheralta Sacred Landscape, which consists of the Gheralta ridge and the twenty-eight rock-hewn monuments carved into the sandstone, represents the first phase of the serial nomination. The geology of the Gheralta area is characterized by Precambrian rocks, Permo-Carboniferous sedimentary rocks, Middle Jurassic–Triassic to Early Cretaceous sedimentary rocks. The churches in this locality area are all carved into Enticho Sandstone or into Adigrat Sandstone. Enticho and EdagaArbi are glacial in origin (shale and tillites). Adigratsandstone, which overlies these glacial origin rocks, is typically yellowish to pink, fine to medium grained, well sorted and cross-bedding and quartz rich. In places Adigratsandstone is calcareous especially toward the top and near contact with the overlying carbonate rich units. Gheralta is a long ridge, with sides which are near vertical. These steep pillars are the last remnants of a thick sandstone plateau, now mostly eroded away, which were deposited in the Paleozoic as sediments washing out from large Gondwanan glaciers and they are found directly on top of folded, metamorphosed Precambrian gneisses. In places, basalt lava has pushed through a crack in the sandstone, forming a narrow intrusion, or dyke, which has then eroded away more rapidly than the sandstone, resulting in narrow passageways which lead into the sandstone massifs and act as informal stairways to a number of the churches.

The rock-hewn monuments of Gheralta, which are located at altitudes varying from approx. 2100 –2500 metres above sea level, have been carved into various levels of the sandstone, from the bottom to the top of the outcrop. The monuments were excavated at different dates over a period of 1,500 years, from the 5th – 14th centuries AD. Located in a spectacular landscape of great scenic beauty, access to many of them is extremely challenging and in some cases involves climbing vertical surfaces utilizing handholds and footholds cut into the rock, or by walking along a narrow ledge with a vertical drop below. Some of the earliest may originally have been tombs excavated during the period of the Axumite empire (ended c. 700 AD) and were converted to religious use at a later period. The structures hewn out of the rock to serve as churches from the firsts have plans with columns, arches, beams and domes which imitate conventional masonry and timber construction. Many of the churches contain wall-paintings, dating from 13th – 19th centuries. All churches remain in use, performing their original religious function, and many contain religious treasures in the form of manuscripts, portable paintings, crosses, crowns, sistra, drums and other religious artefacts.

Tembien Sacred Landscape

The Tembien Sacred Landscape incorporates twenty-eight rock-hewn churches. The geology of the Tembien area is characterized by Precambrian basement rocks, Permo-Carboniferous sedimentary rocks, Middle Jurassic–Triassic to Early Cretaceous sedimentary rocks and Cenozoic basalts. Among the Precambrian rocks, the Tembien Group (limestone, slates, and dolomites) and the Tsaliet Group (Meta-volcanics) are predominant. Generally in Tigray low-grade, meta-volcanic, meta-volcanoclastic, and meta-sedimentary rocks are intruded by syn- to late-tectonic granitoids and the meta-volcanic and meta-volcanoclastic rocks together forming the largest unit. The rock-hewn churches in these localities are sculpted into Enticho sandstone, Adigrat sandstone and Amba Aradam sandstone. Enticho sandstone is characterized by white, medium-grained sandstone, coarsely cross–bedded with silty beds and some iron rich layers. Adigrat sandstone in the Tembien area is soft and friable, with variegated colour (yellowish to reddish, and pinkish) and generally well-sorted. Toward the upper part of the unit it is generally whitish, friable, and well sorted. Amba Aradam sandstone is consisting of conglomerates, shale and its colour varies from whitish, purple, reddish to yellowish. It is generally coarse grained, friable to compact in strength.TembienDega, the highlands, consists of several mountain chains, cut by high passes which allow travel through the area. Erosion has formed spectacular rock bastions and pinnacles of various shapes and colours.

The rock-hewn churches date principally to the second half of the Middle Ages and are a product of the monastic renaissance which characterised the period. In contrast to the Gheralta and Atstbi Sacred Landscapes, the rock-hewn churches of Tembien therefore form a coherent group in terms of age and function. This is reflected in the fact that many of the churches belong to living monasteries. They are located at altitudes of approx. 1200 – 2800 metres above sea level, at a lower altitude than the Gheralta and Atsbi landscapes. Cycles of wall-paintings are few in number, but a notable exception if the church of Abba Yohanni, which contains both 15th-century wall-paintings and an impressive later series in the first Gondar style, dating to the early 17th century. Many of the churches possess important ecclesiastical treasures, especially manuscripts and crosses, including significant examples of medieval date.

Atsbi Sacred Landscape

The Atsbi Sacred Landscape lies at the eastern edge of the highland plateau, at the top of the escarpment which falls away into the Danakil Depression, parts of which lie below sea level. The area includes twenty-four rock-hewn churches, as well as three very early timber-and-masonry built churches. Atsbi Horst is composed of Precambrian rocks (e.g. meta-sediment, meta-conglomerate, Meta-greywacke, etc.) overlying by Permo-Carboniferous sedimentary rocks, Middle Jurassic–Triassic to Early Cretaceous sedimentary rocks (Enticho Sandstone and Adigrat sandstone), in places include dark brown ferruginous/ lateritic beds. The sandstone in the Atsbi area forms Mesa and butte into which most of the churches are sculpted. Steep-sided ambas (flat-topped mountains) rise out of the highland plateau and it is in their cliff faces that the rock-hewn churches are generally to be found, located at altitudes of between approx.2500 and 2900 metres above sea level.

Rock-hewn churches include the large, five-bay, basilica of Mikael Amba, of 8th – 10th centuries AD, which incorporates important early woodwork dating to the original excavation of the church. Other significant rock-hewn churches include Mikael Barka, Mikael Mitsua and Abuna AregawiAfa’anti. The church of Debra Selam Mikael is a cave church of timber-and-masonry construction with the upper parts and the rear wall carved out of the solid rock, and so is partially rock-hewn.TcherqosAgabo is a small timber-and-masonry church built against a rock overhang. Zarema Giyorgis is a free-standing-built structure. These three churches are amongst the oldest in Ethiopia and are amongst the oldest timber structures in the world, dating between the 6th and 10th centuries AD. Debra Selam Mikael has an outstanding and extensive series of wall-paintings, dating to the 11th / 12th century, whichare amongst the earliest and most important cycles of wall-paintings in Ethiopia, but wall-paintingsare also present in a number of the rock-hewn churches. Monastery churches in Atsbicontain many treasures.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Criterion (ii): The rock-hewn and built churches of the Sacred Landscapes of Tigray, the wall-paintings inside them and the treasures they have accumulated over the centuries illustrate the development of the original Axumite civilisation of northern Ethiopia and the ways in which it was able to receive and assimilate cultural influences from outside, despite the apparent geographical isolation of the Ethiopian highland plateau, initially through the acceptance of Christianity, received from 4th-century Egypt (before it had become the official religion of the Roman empire), the Nine Syrian Saints, who arrived from the Byzantine empire in the 5th / 6th century and founded a series of monasteries which remained important centres of learning and religious practice, and, in the 15th century, artistic influence of the Italian renaissance. These successive influences and the way they were assimilated and became an integral part of Ethiopian culture are richly illustrated by the artistic heritage of Sacred Landscapes of Tigray, which covers almost the whole period of Ethiopian wall-painting, from the 11th / 12th to 20th centuries.

Criterion (iii): The monuments of the Sacred Landscapes of Tigray provide an exceptional testimony to the civilization of medieval Ethiopia, from its inception with the conversion of the empire of Axum to Christianity in the 4th century AD, until its destruction as a result of the invasions of the 16th century. Nevertheless, the isolated position of this series of monuments within the Gheralta, Tembien and Atsbi massifs, as well as their rock-hewn construction, enabled them to survive this cataclysm, to develop and to continue their function in the post-medieval period up to the present.

Criterion (iv): The Sacred Landscapes of Tigray incorporates the largest group of rock-hewn architectural ensembles in the world, illustrating the development of church design over 1,500 years. The built churches provide the earliest surviving examples in the world of the use of timber to create structures, illustrating the importance of wood as one of the primary materials in the development of architecture.

Criterion (v): The Sacred Landscapes of Tigray bear exceptional testimony to human ingenuity in the use of the natural geology to create outstanding architecture within a sacred landscape, where practical difficulties in reaching many of the monuments contribute to the spiritual experience.

Criterion (vi): The Sacred Landscapes of Tigray and their rock-hewn monuments are inextricably associated with the development of Christian beliefs and monastic ideals in an Ethiopian cultural milieu over a long period of time, from the establishment of Christianity in the 4th century, to the religious renaissance associated with the Nine Syrian Saints in the 5th / 6th centuries, the monastic revival in the 14th century to the survival of monasticism today. The spiritual practices associated with the Sacred Landscapes of Tigray preserve in an Ethiopian context a living survival of the oldest forms of Christian monasticism as originally developed by the Desert Fathers in Egypt in the 3rd century AD and popularised by St Anthony.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Integrity: The proposed boundaries of the Sacred Landscapes of Tigray include all the attributes of Outstanding Universal Value. The integrity of the Landscapes has been maintained by the continuation of traditional farming practices in the areas where there are settlements, but much of the preserved natural Landscapes is mountainous, with the only human use being access paths utilised by clergy and worshippers visiting the rock-hewn churches for religious purposes. The churches themselves retain original form from when they were hewn from the rock between the 5th century AD and the end of the Middle Ages. In many cases the churches contain ancient liturgical objects which have been preserved in their original locations over the centuries. The physical fabric of the property of the churches as a group has not suffered from the adverse effects of development or vandalism and threats are therefore limited. Where there are problems caused by fragmentation or decay of rock structures or by water percolation, which adversely affects the rock and any wall-paintings on the surface of the rock, this is the subject of current scientific study which informs preventive conservation measures. The ecclesiastical treasures retained by the churches, especially monastic churches, are authentic ritual objects received as donations from believers from the 12th century onwards and represent an outstanding collection of religious art and artefacts.

Authenticity: The spectacular natural landscapes of Gheralta, Tembien and Atsbi survive without threat from development. What agriculture takes place within the proposed boundaries follows farming practices which reflect centuries of tradition which survive to the present day and reflect a traditional land-management system. The rock-hewn churches retain their original form, design and materials,in their original setting, with few subsequent alterations. The use and function of the religious monuments has survived unchanged and follows the traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which are thought to preserve the oldest Christian liturgical music.The spirit and feeling of the sacred landscape survives from the period when the churches were first carved from the rock and it became a focus of religious and spiritual devotion.

Comparison with other similar properties

The Rock-hewn Churches, Lalibela (Ethiopia), were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1978. They consist of eleven churches in three groups situated close together in Roha, the former capital of the Zagwe dynasty, in what is now the town of Lalibela, named after the eponymous king who is traditionally considered to have been responsible for all eleven churches in the late 12th / early 13th century. However, the most recent scholarship suggests that they were hewn over a longer period. Lalibela is comparable to Sacred Landscapes of Tigray in terms of containing rock-hewn monuments in a style derived from Axumite architecture, but is a much smaller area without comparable links to a spectacular natural landscape.

Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia (Turkey) were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1985. Secular cave dwellings may date back to the 4th century AD, but the churches are later in date. The brief synthesis notes that the site retains “the fossilized image of a province of the Byzantine Empire between the 4th century and the arrival of the Seljuk Turks (1071). Thus, they are the essential vestiges of a civilization which has disappeared”. This is in contrast to the Sacred Landscapes of Tigray, where the culture responsible for the monuments is still alive today and where the monuments remain in active use, in contrast to Cappadocia, where the churches are “dead” monuments. Following the exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece in 1923, most of the wall-paintings in Cappadocia were vandalised and in consequence have had to be heavily restored, in contrast to Tigray, where there has been no significant problem of vandalism and where the monuments therefore retain a higher level of integrity.

The Rock-Hewn Churches of Ivanovo (Bulgaria) were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1979. The site consists of five principal (but small) rock-hewn churches, noted for their 14th-century wall-paintings, with other chapels and cells of the monks. Ivanovo was abandoned during the Middle Ages and cannot be compared with Sacred Landscapes of Tigray as a continuously living site, or in terms of scale or length of use.

Vardzia-Khertvisi, on the Georgian Tentative List, includes the rock-hewn monastery of Vardzia. This contains one principal church and a smaller church. The main church, of the Dormition of the Virgin, dates the 12th century and contains an important cycle of wall paintings, but is really a built structure within a large modified cave rather than an example of rock-hewn architecture. However, most of the site consists of the cells of the monks and connecting passages. The site was abandoned after the arrival of the Ottomans in l578. Vardzia is single site and is therefore not comparable with the Sacred Landscapes of Tigray as groups of monuments.Although there are a few monks living again at Vardzia following the collapse of Communism; it lacks the historic continuity which is one of the main features of the Gheralta, Tembien and Atsbi Sacred Landscapes.

Sümela Monastery (the Monastery of the Virgin Mary), on the Turkish Tentative List, is located on the side of a mountain. The main church is a cave with 18th-century wall-paintings. The monastery was founded in the 4th century and remained in use until 1923 butis now not a living religious site. The standing structures are almost entirely of post-medieval date and it is not comparable to the monuments of the Sacred Landscapes of Tigray in terms of date, because it is a single monastery and because the church is a modified cave rather than true rock-hewn architecture. Finally, the art of Cappadocia, Ivanovo, Sumela and Vardzia is either Byzantine or Byzantine in inspiration and is very different from the eastern Christian art to be seen in the Tigray sacred landscapes.

The Monastery of Geghard and the Upper Azat Valley (Armenia) was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2000. Although though to have been founded in the 4th century, the visible structures date from the 12th century onwards. Two rock-hewn churches and an adjacent princely grave date from the second half of the thirteenth century, while the main church is a built structure, dating from the end of the 13th century. The monastery has remained in use up to the present, even through the Soviet period. Geghard is a single monastic site and cannot therefore be compared to the Sacred Landscapes of Tigray, which are a complex of sites.

The Sacred Landscapes of Tigray are therefore unique as large and complex sacred landscapes containing numerous rock-hewn monuments with a cultural continuity of more than 1,600 years, with a high degree of authenticity and integrity.