Course Syllabus



The eleven Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela have stood for more than eight hundred years. They are part of a sacred landscape that still welcomes tens of thousands of religious pilgrims during the holidays of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. One of the first sites to be designated as UNESCO World Heritage, Lalibela has also long attracted visitors from abroad and is now one of the top tourism destinations in Ethiopia. Work to conserve the churches themselves has been accompanied by extensive urban growth, tourism development plans, infrastructural upgrades, and resettlement of the local residents to areas outside of the heritage site’s buffer zone. Much of this change has occurred in the past decade, as a result of a multi-year endeavor supported by the World Bank and the Ethiopian Government to invest in tourism as an economic generator. Managing these dynamics to preserve the living and physical heritage of the site, while also allowing for community and economic development, presents numerous challenges. 

A Studio X Summer Workshop brought GSAPP students to Lalibela to undertake initial data collection and assessment work. The primary aim of the Summer Workshop was to explore the landscape and community of Lalibela, so as to better understand how use of the churches – as both a religious site and tourism destination – is affected by this investment and change.  To do so, students undertook a rapid survey and assessment of the town that included the following four components:

  1. Assessment of how the values of the World Heritage Site hare spatialized
  2. Visitor/User survey
  3. Mapping of tourism infrastructure & urban growth
  4. Preliminary assessment of management context

The result of this work were compiled in a preliminary report, which will serve as a foundational resource for the Fall studio. 

Avenues of Inquiry for the Fall Studio

Initial findings from the Summer Workshop indicate that the Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela are first and foremost a place of religious activity and pilgrimage. The site’s spiritual and community values, represented through its physical structures and landscape, are what fundamentally make Lalibela an important heritage resource and tourism destination. Balancing the interests of different users, from local community members to foreign tourists, presents significant challenges, but at the same time affords opportunities to maximize the benefits that Lalibela can provide to a range of stakeholders. With these challenges and opportunities in mind, the team identified the following areas for further investigation and development: 

  • Visualization/Spatialization of Values - The diverse values of Lalibela are not easily understood within the core area and surrounding landscape. Additional mapping and possible 3D visualizations are needed to better represent significant view sheds and vantage points, processional and circulation routes, character-defining features, and the relationship of the World Heritage site to surrounding/regional historic sites and religious landscapes. Furthermore, the cyclical rhythm of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church calendar dictates much of the use of the site. Visualizing the temporal aspect of these values will further improve understanding of the management context of the site.
  • Site and Landscape Management - Significant changes in recent years have prompted re-consideration of the interpretation of the site and its surrounding landscape, routes of access and circulation, conservation and reuse of the traditional tukuls, and re-examination of the impacts of the protective shelters over the churches.
  • Land Use Planning and Sustainable Development - The existing land use plan for Lalibela town was developed in 2009 and is due for revision in 2019, presenting an important opportunity for better incorporating heritage values into land use decision-making, implementing new zoning approaches, addressing transportation and access issues, and strategically planning the location and development of denser urban settlements as well as tourism infrastructure and related businesses.
  • Visitor/User Management and Infrastructure – Key priorities for accommodating pilgrimage and tourism, as well as daily religious use include better data collection and analysis regarding visitation and tourism infrastructure, improved planning for tourism development (see Land Use above), improved facilities for and coordination of pilgrims during high holy days (especially Christmas), improved facilities for those working and living in the core area of the site, so as to provide basic services/quality of life while also protecting sacredness; and enhanced coordination among national, regional and local authorities, church officials, and private owners/developers in developing the visitor infrastructure of Lalibela.
  • Communication and Coordination - There are gaps in communication among stakeholders regarding the maintenance of the churches and the surrounding heritage resources/landscape. While the 2013 Management Plan provides a very good basis for integrated management, further coordination, allocation of responsibilities, and collective visioning are needed to ensure integrated destination management that serves the local community and nonlocal visitors alike. 

To consolidate the above issues and streamline the work of the studio, the following will serve as the primary avenues of inquiry for the Fall, so as to effectively progress from data collection and analysis to proposal development and planning: 

1)    Development of a proposed zoning strategy to guide land use, project and manage growth and tourism, identify key corridors for transportation/access and development, provide a regional approach to heritage management, protect key landscapes, etc.

2)    Development of a proposed destination management strategy (based on recent research related to destination management organizations and systems) that helps to balance religious, heritage, and tourism interests. The strategy may, for example, propose types of data to be collected, tools for managing and analyzing that data, information sharing amongst key stakeholders, and approaches to shared decision-making. Fundamentally, this strategy would work to integrate heritage management with broader decision-making for Lalibela. 

Learning Objectives and Didactic Method

This advanced studio seeks to develop student skills in mapping, assessing, and integrating cultural heritage within broader planning efforts, tourism development, and urbanization. As a project-based studio, students work collaboratively to research, analyze, and propose recommendations for future action, compiling findings in a collective final report.

The studio is multi-disciplinary, engaging students from Historic Preservation, Urban Planning, and Real Estate Development. As an advanced studio, this course is a facilitated learning experience. Through independent and collective research, data collection, and analysis, the students will shape the direction of the study and its ultimate proposals, in consultation with studio partners (see below). Specific learning objectives include:

  • Working collaboratively on a client-driven project and report
  • Locating and aggregating relevant data resources
  • Developing rapid survey methods appropriate to a challenging field environment
  • Mapping and visualization of urban and heritage data

 Course Scope and Deliverables

The studio will engage students in a study of Lalibela that includes the following:

  • Background research and data compilation
  • Mapping and visualization of urban growth and development over time
  • Literature review
  • History of Lalibela - as a sacred/religious pilgrimage site, conserved heritage site, urbanizing town/landscape, tourism destination
  • Case studies of related heritage and sacred/pilgrimage sites from elsewhere (lessons learned)
  • Fieldwork (in Ethiopia, Oct 8-16)
  • Interviews with local authorities, agencies, organizations to understand visions, capacities, existing plans, etc.
  • Follow-up survey of key aspects of urban growth and tourism development/infrastructure
  • Compilation of findings
  • Update of mapping and visualization
  • Final analysis and development of recommendations
  • Final report writing and illustration

 The work of the semester will be compiled into a report (text and graphics) that will be prepared collaboratively by the students (see below). The findings and proposals incorporated in the report will be presented by the students at a final presentation on Tuesday, December 13.


This is an international travel studio that takes students to the field October 8-16. Given the environment of Ethiopia and the remoteness of Lalibela, students should be prepared for challenging, though culturally fascinating, conditions in the field. A separate TRAVEL BRIEF has been compiled to help students prepare for the trip (to be distributed on September 6th, the first day of class).


World Monuments Fund (WMF)

Department of Conservation of Urban Architecture and Architectural Heritage Development, Addis Ababa University (AAU-EiABC)

Course Requirements and Evaluation

Performance in the course will be evaluated on the following:

  • Class participation
  • Individual and collective research, texts, and visuals/maps
  • Fieldwork in Ethiopia (Oct 8-16)
  • Final Presentation
  • Final Report
  • All students are required to complete IRB training by the start of the semester.


Course Summary:

Date Details Due