Lalibela, the world heritage site caught in the war in Ethiopia | New

Government forces recaptured the historic town famous for its iconic rock-hewn churches from rival Tigrayan forces.

The Ethiopian government says its forces and allies have recaptured the town of Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Amhara region of the besieged country.

Lalibela, home to 11 medieval rock-hewn churches and a place of pilgrimage for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, was captured in early August by Tigray forces locked in a brutal war with the Ethiopian federal government for more than a year.

“The historic town of Lalibela has been liberated,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office said in a tweet on Wednesday, announcing the seizure of a number of towns north of the capital, Addis Ababa.

A priest seated outside Biete Abba Libanos reads a liturgy book written in Geez, the ancient language of scriptures in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church [File: Jenna Belhumeur/Al Jazeera]

The reconquest of the city, one of the most famous landmarks on the African continent, is seen as a boost for Abiy’s government, which announced last week that it would travel to the battlefield to lead federal troops against their rivals.

Originally known as Roha, the town was named after Lalibela, the 12th-century Emperor of Ethiopia.

During his reign, the city’s iconic churches were carved in stone to simulate a New Jerusalem, considered to be the home of all Christians around the world. It is believed to have been inspired by the king’s visit to Jerusalem itself. It is said that churches were built in just 24 years.

One of the most vaunted churches, the House of Golgotha, contains Lalibela’s tomb.

Each church has a resident priest, a much appreciated position. This priest exhibits the ancient manuscripts – still in immaculate condition – kept in the church [File: Jenna Belhumeur/Al Jazeera]

Four of the churches are independent, while seven of them are hewn from the rock. The monolithic blocks were chiseled, forming doors, windows, columns, various floors, trenches, and ceremonial passages – some with openings to hermit caves and catacombs.

The city was designated a World Heritage Site in 1978.

Until the COVID-19 pandemic, Lalibela was also an annual attraction for many tourists hoping to glimpse holy places and participate in sacred rituals – bringing much-needed income and employment opportunities to its residents.

The war in northern Ethiopia has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced more than two million, creating a serious humanitarian crisis and inflicting injuries on the economy.

Biete Medhani Alem is considered the largest monolithic church in the world. The churches were not built in the traditional way, but rather built from top to bottom [File: Jenna Belhumeur/Al Jazeera]

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