Preserving Africa's great churches

The church of Yemrehanna Kristos is one of Ethiopia's best-preserved late Axumite churches, and is named for a twelfth-century Zagwe priest-king and saint.
The church of Yemrehanna Kristos is one of Ethiopia's best-preserved late Axumite churches, and is named for a twelfth-century Zagwe priest-king and saint.
Jim Zuckerman photography

The list of completed projects on the Zamani Project website of the African Cultural Heritage Sites and Landscape Database reads like a treasure map from an Indiana Jones movie: Egypt’s Valley of the Queens; Jordan’s “lost city” of Petra; Mali’s mud-constructed Djenne Mosque; Sudan’s Meroe Pyramids; and all 11 of Ethiopia’s rock-hewn Lalibela churches.

Those are just the blockbusters; the list of awe-inspiring heritage sites Zamani has documented goes on and on. Each of these sites has been photographed, digitally scanned using specially developed cameras and software, and then spatially mapped, in staggering detail, to create a 3-D archive of the spaces that regularly appear on the endangered-site lists.

If the recent bombings of the Mali mosques by groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State-led attacks on other sites of worship worldwide are anything to go by, there is an increased threat to these spiritual repositories of the past.

This week #Trending caught up with Heinz Rüther, professor emeritus of geomatics at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and leader of the Zamani Project for the past 12 years. The team had just returned from a weeklong site recce of the Yemrehanna Kristos church – another of Ethiopia’s spectacular orthodox churches currently on the 2016 World Monuments Watch (a list of at-risk sites). The striped-timber and stone structure was built in a cave in the 12th century, nearly a century before the more famous Lalibela churches that are located just a few kilometres away. It took Rüther’s team three months to document all the churches.

“It was a spectacular trip to get there. The road is nearly 3 000m above sea level and continually crosses through passes and valleys,” he said from UCT. “The Yemrehanna Kristos is unique in that it is not cut out of rock like the Lalibela churches– it is made by stacking one horizontal layer of wood and then a layer of stone, then a layer of wood, then another layer of stone. It creates this kind of zebra pattern, which is quite something. Inside, it has the most beautiful modelled, patterned ceilings. It’s certainly one of the most interesting churches I’ve seen. At the back of the church is a pile of about 3 000 skulls, which were brought to the church post-death.”

The structure, which was built by, and then subsequently named after, a famous Zagwe priest-king and saint, has up until now remained one of the better-preserved sites in Ethiopia, but a new road currently in the works will allow tourists and pilgrims greater access, and has put additional pressure on preservation groups such as the World Monuments Fund (WMF) to make sure it is better protected and preserved.

Members of the Zamani Project are experts in the type of work required to do this, but often the actual labour involves far more complex field campaigns.

“We’ve been asked by the WMF to do a 3-D documentation as a data set for the conservators and restorers to plan their restoration from. You can see severe cracks in the structures and those we record so that the WMF conservators can determine the structural analysis to replace the works into their original position. The walls are bending quite badly,” says Rüther.

“This project received quite difficult responses from the church authorities themselves. They have serious concerns about what we are going to do with the data. I had three meetings with the church committee, where I had to sit with them and negotiate between them and the government. We got the go-ahead eventually, but it required many promises.”

The group is currently working on a slave trade project to establish a database for the relevant sites on both the west and east African coasts. They are combining the Zamani Project’s 3-D data and photographic data with new historical information generated by partner institutions such as the University of York to establish a database of the slave trade on the continent that is interactive and integrated, allowing future generations invaluable insight into, and access to, the world’s most contested, and guarded, spaces. So far, they have logged about 600 individual trips to and from Africa that collected slaves for sale.

The Zamani Project is completely dependent on donations to do its work and is at this moment without an institutional funder, relying entirely on the support and fundraising of one UCT former alumnus. Their website is a thing of beauty and deserves an exploration, so get in touch at to see what they do and to assist their efforts

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August 2020

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