Potential impact of explosive weapons on the Lalibela rock-hewn churches

Recent claims on social media, particularly on Twitter, allege that the Lalibela rock-hewn churches, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Ethiopia, were damaged by an air strike conducted by the Ethiopian army on November 11, 2023.

These claims emerged against the backdrop of the ongoing armed conflict in the Amhara region between Fano militants and the Ethiopian armed forces. Recent clashes have been reported in the historic town of Lalibela, near the UNESCO-registered churches.

The Lalibela rock-hewn churches, comprising 11 monolithic churches intricately carved from solid rock in the 13th century, stand as a pivotal pilgrimage destination for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. These churches are esteemed as one of Ethiopia’s most significant cultural and religious landmarks.

Over the centuries, the Lalibela churches have suffered damage from erosion and weathering. Some churches are at risk due to erosion, primarily caused by weathering that damages the stone surfaces. Recent conservation and restoration projects have been implemented at the site.

There have been several restoration campaigns since the early 20th century. Notably, three successive campaigns were conducted in 1920, 1954, and 1966-68 under Sandro Angelini, an Italian architect and conservator known for his work in the field of historical monument restoration direction. The initial restorations in 1920 and 1954 were hastily done without scientific precautions, using excessive cement, which worsened the condition of the churches. Angelini had to correct these negative aspects in later restorations.

UNESCO, the US, and the European Union are among those supporting the restoration and maintenance efforts of the churches.

The European Union funded the construction of temporary shelters over five churches to protect them from weathering while conservation studies and activities were being carried out.

In 2008, UNESCO built temporary shelters over five churches to protect five Lalibela churches.

However, the shelters caused vibration and noise, and their weight strained the delicate structures. The shelters’ heavyweight, susceptibility to wind damage, and lack of scientific monitoring have led to fears that they may collapse and damage the churches.

Therefore, a new conservation study was initiated in 2019 to recommend an alternative protection for the long-term conservation of the churches.

In March 2019, French President Macron visited the Lalibela churches site with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and pledged assistance in preserving, restoring, and enhancing the area.

The renovation and restoration project, initiated by the French embassy in September 2019, stopped when the war between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) spilled over into the Amhara regional state.

The conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has raised concerns about the fate of the Lalibela churches. While the TPLF took control of Lalibela in August 2021, the Ethiopian government regained control in December 2021.

In October 2022, France granted Ethiopia 5 million euros to support preserving and restoring the Lalibela churches. The grant was provided to conduct the preparatory phase of a program focused on preserving and restoring the churches.

The Amhara region of Ethiopia has been the site of an ongoing armed conflict between the Ethiopian government and Fano armed militants since the government began disbanding regional special police forces and integrating them into the regional regular police, federal police, and the Ethiopian military.

Recently, conflicts and confrontations between Fano and the Ethiopian army have been documented in various areas of the Amhara region, including the North Showa and Oromo special zones.

Furthermore, hostilities have broken out in the historic Ethiopian town of Lalibela, where government forces clashed with Fano militants, including a recent skirmish near the Lalibela rock-hewn churches involving the Fano militia and the Ethiopian army.

The armed conflict has raised concerns about the safety of Lalibela’s UNESCO World Heritage Site churches. Recent clashes have caused ground vibrations due to heavy weapons fire, adding to the uncertainty surrounding the safety and preservation of this cultural heritage site.

The town of Lalibela has experienced recurrent armed clashes between Fano militia groups and Ethiopian military troops. Fighting was reported on September 20, October 1, and October 8, with Fano militants capturing the town for hours on October 8 before being recaptured by Ethiopian Defense Forces on October 9.

Media reports indicate that heavy artillery weapons were employed during these recurrent clashes, leading to ground vibrations when weapons were discharged.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church expressed concern about the safety of the monolith churches of Lalibela, with Abune Ermias, archbishop of North Wollo and Kemise Diocese, stating that the Lalibela churches are at high risk due to the fighting.

Responding to concerns, the Amhara Regional Culture and Tourism Bureau refuted allegations circulating on social media that the Lalibela churches were damaged during the fighting. This statement followed reports alleging damage to the churches during clashes between Ethiopian army troops and Fano militants in Lalibela.

Abebaw Ayalew, director-general of the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, stated that a committee of seven individuals visited Lalibela to assess whether the churches sustained damages.

He noted vibrations in the area but confirmed no new cracks in the walls and structures of the churches. Abebaw stated that the office is investigating whether the vibrations caused previous cracks to widen and aggravate using three-dimensional (3D) tools.

Abebaw stated that the committee verified the churches were undamaged by weapons and fragments. Yet, they did discover a newly lodged bullet on the fence of the museum within Biete Medhane Alem, a rock-hewn church in Lalibela.

During a recent public meeting organized by the Ethiopian National Defense Force and the Amhara region in Lalibela town, attendees reported that Ethiopian army troops fired artillery and machine cannons from the vicinity of the churches, resulting in ground vibrations.

How do explosive weapons damage buildings and structures?

Explosive weapons, as explained in a report by the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, a leading expert organization on explosive materials, 2017 can harm buildings and structures in two main ways: through primary and secondary effects.

Primary effects include blast overpressure, fragmentation, and heat, while secondary effects encompass debris or secondary fragmentation, firebrands, ground shock, and cratering. These secondary effects happen based on the surroundings where the explosive device explodes.

The degree of harm is contingent on several factors, such as the specific explosive weapon utilized, the distance from the detonation site to the structure, and the materials used in the building’s construction.

Blast overpressure, fragmentation, and heat

Blast overpressure, the most damaging primary effect, occurs when energy is rapidly released in an explosion.

A powerful blast wave, also known as a shockwave, swiftly travels through the air at supersonic speeds, exerting significant force on nearby structures. This force can damage buildings, applying pressure to roofs and walls, leading to shattered windows, warped walls, and structural collapse.

Fragments from the explosive device, especially those originating from the metal casing of the warhead, can travel tens to a few hundred meters away from the explosion site.

Fragmentation, another main impact, includes scattering high-speed projectiles from the casing objects. These fragments, varying from small pieces to larger chunks, have the potential to cause damage to buildings and structures. While not as dangerous to buildings as blast waves, these fragments can still pose a threat.

The heat released during detonation is confined to the nearby space, and its duration is brief. This heat results from the intense chemical reaction in the explosive detonation.

It has the potential to harm building materials, decreasing their flexibility. While the main thermal risk is usually less severe than blast and fragmentation dangers, it can still weaken building materials and structures, causing them to lose flexibility and contribute to gradual collapse. Moreover, heat can trigger flammable materials, resulting in additional fires.

Debris or secondary fragmentation and firebrands

Secondary effects occur when the explosion interacts with the surrounding environment.

Debris, including fragments of building materials, vegetation, or other dislodged objects, can inflict additional damage as they collide with structures.

While secondary fragments may not travel as far or as quickly as primary fragments, they can still penetrate walls, break windows, and cause structural harm.

Firebrands, which are composed of burning materials or fragments, have the potential to ignite nearby combustible materials.

This situation may occur when an explosive device detonates in close proximity to flammable objects such as wood, grass, vehicles, and fuel.

Embers risk buildings and structures by igniting nearby combustible materials and contributing to increased damage.

Ground shock and cratering

Ground shock occurs when the energy from the shockwave is transferred to the ground, shaking the foundations of buildings, compromising their structural integrity, and raising the risk of collapse.

Cratering, another secondary effect, occurs when a depression forms in the ground at the detonation site, potentially damaging nearby structures and destabilizing foundations.

While the recent claim of damage to the Lalibela rock-hewn churches remains unverified,  the ongoing conflict in the vicinity of these susceptible churches and the deployment of explosive weapons can result in additional damage, encompassing blast overpressure, fragmentation, heat, debris (secondary fragmentation), firebrands, ground shock, and cratering.

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