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Residents of the Ethiopian town of Lalibela, 300 Kilometres north of Addis Ababa, are the latest victims of the growing trend of cultural theft. They were woken by gunfire at 3am on Monday March 10 to discover that a thief had stolen one of the town?s most sacred historic items - a gold cross that once belonged to the late King Lalibela.
King Lalibela ruled during the twelfth century, in which time he built huge underground churches carved out of solid bedrock and which still exist in the town. The gold cross, one of the churches? historic treasures, weighed several kilograms and was reportedly made of pure gold. It was normally stored in Lalibela?s largest monolithic church - Beta Medhane Alem, or Church of the Saviour of the World, but on the fateful night, a priest sleeping nearby was apparently awakened by some noise. He saw someone fleeing, but he did not see a face. He immediately alerted guards, who sounded the alarm. Tourists leaving Lalibela by air were inspected by local police, as well as airport officials and vehicles were prevented from leaving the town all morning.
This is not the first time the town has experienced such theft. A couple of years ago, an ancient book disappeared from one of the churches, but word of the theft spread so quickly that the thief was left with no option but to return it.
Lalibela?s cross and many other valuable museum pieces are openly exhibited to tourists, and are permanently stored in the churches themselves. Clergy and residents alike professed assurance that holy powers look after the treasures. Many expressed certainty that the cross will not get far.
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