The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Millennium Projects

Author - Bernard Lardner

This article tells of a year long Millennium project that was seen as an opportunity to give something back to those in Ethiopia who, on visits to the country, had always been unfailingly humorous, polite, and generous. The story of how it started is too long, suffice to say that after identifying a number of worthy projects with the Tigray Commission for Tourism and Culture it was decided to form a UK charity to restore the rock-hewn church at Eyesus Hintsa, in a beautiful river valley 64km south of Mekele, the capital of Tigray.

Eyesus Hintsa, external view.
Photo - © Bernard Lardner

The church (c.l4th century) is mysterious, atmospheric and decorated with elaborate Axumite carvings making it one of the finest, yet least visited of the Tigrayan churches. It dominates a sandstone outcrop overlooking a dramatically beautiful prehistoric volcanic river valley with spectacular wildlife. The journey to reach it is through a truly magical landscape and into an earlier time.

The project started with an archaeological team testing the age of the church and its platform. On the river terraces below the church they found, helped by local children, many stone tools and arrow heads ranging from about 30,000 to 3,000BC indicating the length of human occupation in this ancient place.

It was agreed that this was to be a grass roots project focussed on the local people. The first task was to hold a meeting, when the whole community was present at a religious festival, to elect a representative committee for each of the priests, women, youth, elders and local administration. This committee supervised the project together with the charity’s surveyor.

Eyesus Hintsa, internal view.
Photo - © Bernard Lardner

Altogether some 2,800 local people were involved — men, women and children. Sometimes there was hard physical work in harsh climatic conditions but it was undertaken with dignity and great good humour. In all, 6km of stone terracing was built to stop erosion and 5,000 drought resistant trees planted — half being fruit trees. Tree planting is a key objective of the Millennium committee. A water channel was built to a river 3 km distance bringing water in the long, dry season to a reservoir. The church, the focus of the project, had the hole in its roof repaired while wooden doors and windows were made to replace the old metal ones, the broken floor was improved, and the graves conserved. A museum, a replica of a traditional farmhouse, was built to hold the once scattered church treasures, including a bronze crown believed by the priests to have been a gift from King Lalibela in the 12th century. The opportunity was taken to build a community centre. Both were supplied with sustainable electricity using solar panels since there is no electric supply in the area.

The people of the valley put immense efforts into the project and it is hoped that travellers will take the chance of a day trip to see the cluster of rock churches that include Eyesus Hintsa. The tourist guidebooks have been notified to include it and signposts have been set up on the road from Mekele. Alternatively, stay longer (the next stage is to build a small lodge, with a veranda overlooking the valley, once the funds have been raised) and get to know the people by drinking tella (local beer) with them, and at night listen to the hyenas in the surrounding hills and see the majestic canopy of stars in the African night.

Further information on this charitable project can be seen on

First Published in News File Summer 2008

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