Survey of the rock-cut painted churches of Tigray, Ethiopia
A comprehensive technical and condition survey of wall paintings in the rock-cut churches of Tigray, Ethiopia, carried out for the Ethiopian Heritage Fund, with funding from the Gerda Henkel Stiftung
Ethiopia’s ancient Christian heritage finds expression in its remarkable rock-cut painted churches. The northern region of Tigray preserves many of the earliest and most important of these, scattered across mountainous terrain. Although about 150 sites are recorded, their true number is unknown. They range in size from small hermits’ caves to others with cathedral-like proportions. Over 40 churches preserve wall paintings, which mainly date from the medieval period to the 18th century. A significant number of these are being damaged or lost. Long-standing reasons for this include inherent environmental and geological problems, such as rock collapse, moisture and salts problems, and weathering. But there are also newer threats. Paintings are damaged or destroyed when old churches are abandoned and replaced with new buildings. Well-meaning but misguided local attempts at renovation have the same outcomes. Protective oversight and regular maintenance are lacking.
Establishing a comprehensive record is urgently required. Since 2013, Rickerby and Shekede have been wall painting consultants to the Ethiopian Heritage Fund (EHF), a UK-based charity founded to conserve and promote Ethiopia’s cultural heritage. In 2019, we completed the first phase of a two-part survey of the painted churches of Tigray, with generous funding from the Gerda Henkel Stiftung. To date, some 31 sites have been surveyed, often in remote locations that can only be accessed by off-road trekking, or reached with the aid of climbing ropes and harnesses. Churches are identified through archival research and by consulting local people. At each site, general and detailed imaging is undertaken. Paintings are investigated using portable microscopy and multi-spectral imaging, and small paint samples are taken for analysis. Outcomes will provide the most in-depth technical and condition assessment yet undertaken. The survey is timely. Preliminary findings indicate that about 19% of all known wall paintings in Tigray have disappeared in the last 50 years, half of these in the last 5 years.
The survey is carried out in collaboration with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) and the Tigray Bureau of Culture and Tourism (TBCT). Training of local personal in surveying and monitoring is a key component.