Important New Book on Ethiopian ChurchesAugust 18th, 2011
An important new book by David Phillipson has been published which demystifies the history of Ethiopia’s Ancient Christian Churches and provides research and commentary which is overdue about a significant period of architectural history in Ancient Christian culture which until now has not been fully justified by any author.
Ethiopian Christian culture has thus far not received the attention it deserves. Christianity, to which the Aksumite state in northern Ethiopia was converted as early as the 4th century, was a dominant influence in a vibrant civilization which can be documented for many centuries. Yet, as David Phillipson recalls, a 318 page work on Early Christian Art and Architecture by R. Milburn, published in 1988, devoted no more than thirty-nine words to the subject!
Phillipson, a former Director of the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, has labored hard to redress the situation. An archaeologist renowned for his earlier work on ancient Aksum, which flourished in the first half millennium of the Christian era, he has more recently interested himself in its southerly successor civilization associated with the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela,
Phillipson’s Ancient Churches of Ethiopia, a work of scholarship which is also a beautifully crafted "coffee-table book", covers an important period of Ethiopian history: the millennium from the Fourth Century AD, when the Aksumites first accepted Christianity as their state religion, to the Fourteenth Century, by which time a dynasty claiming descent from the biblical King Solomon and the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba was firmly in control in Shawa to the south.
Though Ethiopia is fortunate, and virtually unique in Africa, in possessing a written language – Ge’ez, the Ethiopian church wrote relatively little about its history. Existing church records consist mainly of royal land grants, some merely later copies, and hence of uncertain historical validity. A Ge’ez life of Lalibela (the king after which the settlement of that name was called) tells how he is believed to have created the churches after visiting heaven. This narrative, written some three centuries after Lalibela’s death, cannot be considered much more than a legend.
Many churches, it is true, are decorated with wonderful wall-paintings, not a few reproduced in this book. They were in many instances added long after the buildings’ original completion – and therefore provide no more than terminus ad quem evidence. The author’s analysis of church history therefore rests largely on scrutiny of the structures themselves.
Research on the churches is however, hindered by the fact that most are still in everyday use. Many have been repaired over the centuries, but with material not different from that out of which they were originally made, thus rendering the dating of such developments at times virtually impossible.
Oral traditions on church history are moreover often far from reliable, not only because of parishioners’ tendency to exaggerate the antiquity and/or importance of a church-founder, but also on account of the system of Ethiopian royal naming in which monarchs often shared identical, and hence not always easily identifiable, names. Another difficulty in dating arises from the practice whereby Ethiopians often refer to a church solely by the name of its tabot, or altar slab, with the result that a new building may be dated after a much older tabot .
Dating also cannot be assumed on the basis of a church’s geographical location, for buildings, even in close proximity, were often in no way contemporary. Churches of the same period may similarly vary greatly as a result of their founder’s wealth or status, rather than of their age. The author warns in this connection that modern travelers, flying or using four wheel drive vehicles, are prone to under- estimate the transport difficulties encountered by church builders of former times.
Despite such pitfalls Phillipson, who is essentially concerned with Ethiopian church architecture, has succeeded in presenting us with a closely reasoned geographical, historical and typological analysis of the subject. Geographically, he is concerned with the churches of Tegre and Eritrea to the north, and Amhara, including Lalibela, to the south. Historically, he covers Aksumite, post-Akusmite, and medieval churches. Typologically, he deals with built churches and hypogea, or rock-hewn churches, both basilican in form, and round churches, rare until the end of his period.
The Ancient Churches of Ethiopia begins with an inquiry into Ethiopia’s Aksumite - and indeed pre-Aksumite - heritage, and provides a valuable account of the ancient, pre-Christian, temple of Yeha and of the old church of Maryam Tsion at Aksum, "Ethiopia’s mother church" as it has been called. This is followed by a discussion on other early Aksumite built (as opposed to excavated) churches, including some at the Aksumite Red Sea port of Adulis.
Phillipson’s focus then turns to built churches of late and post-Aksumite times. These include the northerly church of Debra Damo, situated on the summit of an amba, or flat-topped mountain, climbable only with the help of a 17 metre rope; the more-southerly churches of Imrahanna Krestos and Makina Madhane Alem, both protected from the elements by being built in caves; and the unusual round church of Debra Tekla Haymanot at Bethlehem, north-west of Lalibela.
This brings us to hypogea of Tegray and Amhara. The former are cut out of hard sandstone (which facilitated particularly fine stone-carving), and are scattered over mountainous land difficult of access. They were little known to the outside world until their existence was dramatically revealed, as the present reviewer recalls, by a Catholic priest, Father Tewoldemedhin Yosef, to the Third International Conference of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa, in 1966.
The hypogea churches of Amhara , which are cut from a soft volcanic tuff, are likewise widely distributed, from Sokota, capital of Wag in the north, to the environs of modern Addis Ababa in the south. One of these latter churches, Yekka Mika’el, the second largest such structure in the country, is unfinished, but easily accessible from the capital.
The most remarkable Amhara hypogea are those at Lalibela, the existence of which was known in Europe since medieval times, but which, thanks to the opening of the nearby airport, have recently become the destination – or victim? – of mass tourism. The largest of these churches, Medhane Alem, a structure with rows of sturdy internal and external columns, is of particular interest in that it is widely believed to have been a copy of the original, long lost, church of Mariam Tsion at Aksum.
Lalibela is unique in that, unlike other sites, it is not the location of a single rock-hewn church, but of no fewer than eleven – which vary immensely in style. Their proximity, and differences, help to establish their dating and sequence of excavation – and thereby contribute to Ethiopian medieval chronology in general.
Much of the interest of Ancient Churches of Ethiopia lies in its ambitious reformulation of Ethiopian chronology. Hitherto it was believed, largely on the basis of no longer accepted numismatic evidence, that the Aksumite empire did not decline until at least the 10th century. Modern scholarship, spearheaded by Phillipson, now holds that this decline occurred around the 6th century, which would incidentally seem to explain the paucity of Aksumite inscriptions after the reign of Ezana (4th century). From Phillipson’s dating it would follow that the Zagwé dynasty, the dynasty responsible for creating the Lalibela churches, lasted several centuries longer than previously believed.
A further revision, connected with the above, rejects the old Ethiopian tradition that the hypogea of Lalibela were all excavated as churches on the orders of King Lalibela himself, or possibly, in the case of Beta Masqal, by his consort, Queen Masqal Kebra. This belief was initially accepted by most scholars, but it was later perceived that three hypogea, namely Bethlehem, Beta Merkurios, and Beta Gabriel-Rufael, display no evidence of original ecclesiastical use – thus leading to the supposition that they were once palaces or related buildings. This probability is reinforced by Phillipson’s nearby discovery – not elaborated in this book - of traces of above-ground buildings and other stone-work of conceivably secular origin.
Phillipson’s researches lead him to assume that the Lalibela hypogea were produced not by one sole monarch, but by a succession of kings in five discernable phases, covering no less than half a millennium, from the 8th or even the 7th century up to the 12th and early 13th century. The earliest of these structures, the author believes, were probably those referred to above as not originally designed as churches. But on this point, the Jury, we may say, is Still Out.
Ancient Churches of Ethiopia is usefully supported by an abundance of photographs, maps, diagrams, and a glossary. There is also a fascinating appendix on early travelers to Lalibela, and an extensive bibliography. --Capital