Cliff face challenge to rescue Ethiopian church paintings
Stephen Rickerby and Lisa Shekede need a head for heights. As wall painting conservation experts, they often clamber up scaffolding to view rare surviving images in churches across Britain.
But this year they have faced risks that are extreme even by their standards: scaling death-defying heights and sheer cliff faces to reach extraordinary paintings within churches in remote areas of northern Ethiopia.
Their major study of ancient churches is for a UK-based charity, the Ethiopian Heritage Fund. Many have never been properly surveyed, and in some cases rope-scaling is the only way to access churches built into cliffs and caves. More than 150 rock-cut or constructed examples have been identified so far. Some are carved into the rock, cavelike with “stunning” interiors, Rickerby said. “The exterior of these sites rarely gives you the impression of what they’re like inside. They’re carved architecture with pillars, columns, capitals, arches, vaults. It’s sophisticated internal architecture in some of these places.”
About 45 have paintings, largely dating from the 12th to 18th centuries, depicting local saints and sometimes a virgin and child, but most are largely unknown beyond the local communities, despite their significance. The British experts have also found evidence that their survival is under threat.
“A number of churches and their paintings have been recently destroyed or obliterated,” Rickerby told the Observer.
With growing populations, local communities build a new church closer to their village and abandon the ancient site, which gets neglected or even ransacked for building materials, leaving paintings exposed. “It’s pretty alarming because no one outside the local communities has any idea of what’s going on,” he said.
Rickerby, who is a consultant to the Getty Conservation Institute and works closely with the Courtauld Institute and English Heritage, described these paintings as “an expression of artistic spirituality from one of the countries where Christianity arrived earliest in history”.
“Ethiopia converted to Christianity in the 4th century. So if we’re concerned about our Christian heritage, the fact that the cradle of Christian art is disappearing should concern us all,” Rickerby said. Although some local people are fiercely protective of their churches, these historic sites are “off the radar” and “local safeguards are really weak”, he added.
Some of the churches are so remote that they involve hours of hiking after hours of driving, said Rickerby: “Typically, roads are washed out, you get diverted, you’re going across country, there are no signposts. You’re relying on local people to tell you where some of these churches are. So it’s quite adventurous.”
He added that, while some of the churches would have been difficult to access in their earliest days, others have become more so: “These churches are now additionally stranded by rock collapses. Entrances to some of these churches are lost. That’s why the only route to them is by rope-climbing. With an altitude between 2,500 and 3,000 metres, some of the churches are right on ledges, 400 metres up.”
Local guides, mountaineering barefoot, shared their worn-out ropes – twine and leather bound together, Shekede said: “It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. It’s a steep drop. Your knees go. It’s not like we’re not used to heights. We’ve worked in little cantilevered boxes in the dome of St Paul’s cathedral. We know what it’s like to work at height. But it’s when you’re on the side of a mountain, and you know there’s no health and safety. If you do fall and break something, how the hell are you going to get back down to anywhere? You suddenly realise that things could go horribly wrong.”
But the landscape is stunning, said Rickerby: “Big plains and mountains rising out of them. Sheer mountains. It’s like a Garden of Eden.
“You get that sense of why the churches are out there and why they chose those spots. They’re communicating with heaven, rising above the plain.”