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 fourth century, was a dominant influence in a vibrant civilization that can be documented for many centuries. Yet, as David Phillipson reports, the 318-page Early Christian Art and Architecture by Robert 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 that 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.
Although Ethiopia is fortunate, and virtually unique in ancient 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 whom the settlement of that name is 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 of which are reproduced in this book. They were in many instances added long after the buildings' original completion——and therefore provide no more than a terminus ante quem. 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 using the same or similar materials, often rendering the dating of their developments virtually impossible.
Oral traditions on church history are, moreover, often far from reliable, not only because of parishioners' tendency to exaggerate the antiquity and importance of a church founder, but also on account of the system of Ethiopian royal naming, in which monarchs often shared identical names and are hence not always easily distinguishable. 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; a new building may be named after a much older tabot.
Dating also cannot be assumed on the basis of a church's geographical location, for even buildings in close proximity often vary in age. Conversely, churches of the same period may vary greatly in appearance as a result of their founders' wealth or status, rather than their date. In this connection the author warns that modern travelers, flying or using four-wheel-drive vehicles, are prone to underestimate the difficulties in transporting materials encountered by the church builders.
Despite such pitfalls Phillipson, who is essentially concerned with Ethiopian church architecture, has succeeded in presenting a closely reasoned geographical, historical, and typological analysis of the subject. Geographically, he addresses the churches of Tegre and Eritrea to the north and Amhara, including Lalibela, to the south. Historically, he covers Aksumite, post-Aksumite, 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.
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 of other early Aksumite built (as opposed to excavated) churches, including some in 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 seventeen-meter 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, northwest of Lalibela.
This brings us to the 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 has been known in Europe since medieval times, but thanks to the opening of the nearby airport, they have recently become the destination——or victims?——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 tenth century. Modern scholarship, spearheaded by Phillipson, now holds that this decline occurred around the sixth century, which would incidentally seem to explain the paucity of Aksumite inscriptions after the reign of Ezana (fourth century). From Phillipson's dating it would follow that the Zagwéé dynasty, responsible for creating the Lalibela churches, lasted several centuries longer than previously believed.
A further revision 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 stonework of conceivably secular origin.
Phillipson's researches lead him to assume that the Lalibela hypogea were produced not by one monarch but by a succession of kings in five discernable phases, covering no less than half a millennium, from the eighth or even the seventh century up to the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The oldest of these structures, the author believes, were probably those referred to above, 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——to which this reviewer would propose but one addition: Ruth Plant's Bristol University MLitt thesis "The Rock-hewn Churches of Tigre Province, Ethiopia" of 1972.