A whitewashed neo-Renaissance façade set into a high rock escarpment above the village of Abreha wa-Atsbeha, in East Tigray, Ethiopia, stands in stark contrast to its sunbaked highland surroundings. Behind this façade is a relatively large rock-cut structure, one of the oldest medieval church buildings in Ethiopia. An Italian Renaissance Face on a “New Eritrea”: The 1939 Restoration of the Church of Abreha wa-Atsbeha addresses how the restoration of this church conducted by Italian Fascist authorities represents the appropriation of local history by both Fascist Italy and Ethiopia's own imperial rulers. As Mikael Muehlbauer describes, while the façade classicizes the building, evoking both the Italianita of the Renaissance and the Romanitas of imperial Rome, earlier murals inside claimed it for Yohannes IV, the nineteenth-century Tigrayan emperor of Ethiopia.
Sometime in the period from 1936 to 1939, the new Italian overlords of the Adigrat regional governorate, in the newly formed Africa Orientale Italiana, identified several old churches among the hundreds dotting the Tigrayan highlands in present-day Ethiopia.1 Chosen by the new government for their relative accessibility or their esteemed religious or historical status, these buildings were determined worthy of restoration. As work on the churches began in 1939, the Fascist regional governor Dr. Giuseppe Barbate wrote:
Work is under way as reported in the dossiers of the previous months. Within days, the restoration of two important convents of the circoscrizione [Adigrat regional governorate] will be begun by the local Section OO.PP. [Public Works Department], namely, the Gunde Gunde convent (in the Sease district) and Enda Abreha Azbeha [monastery of Abreha wa-Atsbeha] (in the Aiba Ghemad district). The importance of the two convents [and] the interest of the government [in these monuments] has aroused a very favorable impression.2
Just who was so impressed is unclear, but it might very well have been the native Tigrayan populace. Indeed, this northern Ethiopian ethnic group was accustomed to second-class status under the Amhara-focused policies of the former sovereign, Haile Selassie, and his predecessors.3 In “New Eritrea,” as it was then known, the Italian colonizers aimed to give their subjects certain privileges, including infrastructural improvements and new and refurbished places of worship.
Today, the church of Abreha wa-Atsbeha stands in stark contrast to its larger setting (Figure 1). Typical buildings of the town are hudmos: small, square-plan residences made of semidressed local rubble faced with mud and roofed with timber, mud, and thatch—today largely corrugated aluminum sheeting. The church's whitewashed-plaster, Renaissance revival façade is an anomaly in the sunbaked, reddish-brown, highland landscape of East Tigray.4 From outside, one would not guess that the façade conceals a relatively large, ancient rock-cut structure, one of the oldest and most architecturally distinct churches in Tigray. Yet this building has been little noted by scholars, its bibliography made up mostly of short pieces written by nonspecialists.5 Italian involvement with the façade's construction has been completely overlooked, except for one short mention in a 1954 travelogue by Beatrice Playne.6
The restorations of this and other Tigrayan churches were not simply useful public works conducted by a benevolent occupying force. “The territories now welded to Eritrea [Tigray],” as one internal Italian memo put it, “represent with their large population a ‘safe nursery’ of future Askari [African colonial troops] for our battalions.”7 The Italians believed that the goodwill of their Tigrayan subjects would serve larger schemes of the Fascist colonial project, including industrial agriculture, mining, settler colonialism, and defense. Furthermore, they sought to link these historic Ethiopian structures to Italy's own imperial past. While the restorations of nearby Gunde Gunde monastery are barely noticeable today, the rebuilt face of Abreha wa-Atsbeha provides a direct expression of then-fashionable Italian revival styles.8 Through an unnecessary restoration of this ancient church, complete with new façade, the Fascist government attempted to subsume a burgeoning Tigrayan nationalism within a unified New Eritrea.
Yet traces of earlier Ethiopian interventions remain visible at Abreha wa-Atsbeha, as the church's west end was restored at least twice, with the most obvious work having been done during the reign of Yohannes IV, the nineteenth-century Tigrayan emperor of Ethiopia. The 1939 Italian restoration was undoubtedly an imperialist act, and the choice of a neo-Renaissance façade represented an appropriation of this building for Fascist Italy, one that aimed to historicize and classicize Ethiopia's past according the colonizer's terms. Further, the 1939 restoration campaign effectively displaced Ethiopia's own uses of its historical past through the imposition of an Italian face.
A New Eritrea
In 1935–36, the Kingdom of Italy, emboldened by the ideology of Benito Mussolini, undertook a second invasion of Ethiopia, after a failed first attempt in 1896. At that time, foreign finance capital, French rifles, and Russian artillery buttressed the armies of Emperor Menelik II, and the Italians were soundly defeated.9 However, in the 1930s the armies of Haile Selassie were effectively blockaded from foreign support as the result of appeasement of Mussolini's Italy by the League of Nations. Despite some moderate military successes against the Italians, the mostly feudal and ill-equipped armies of the Ethiopian Empire were quickly overrun by Italian weapons and air superiority.10
Italy already had a solid foothold in northeast Africa. Although the conquest of the independent kingdom of Ethiopia, which sat farther inland in the Horn of Africa, was the territorial goal of the Italian colonists, the Red Sea coast had gradually been both conquered and bought by Italy beginning in the late 1860s. Italy's first acquisition, in 1869, involved a private land purchase by the Genovese merchant Raffaele Ribattino of a small Red Sea port belonging to the local sultan.11 By the time the colony's territories were finalized in the 1890s, “Old Eritrea” amounted to a coastal enclave that included the deepwater Red Sea port of Massawa and the burgeoning inland capital of Asmara, all well connected by a railway.12
With the invasion of Ethiopia completed in 1936, the newly conquered territories were combined with the older Italian holdings of Eritrea and Somalia. Under the auspices of the newly formed Africa Orientale Italiana, Eritrea became an Italian province, one whose size was nearly doubled with the inclusion of all of modern Tigray (where the church of Abreha wa-Atsbeha is today), about half of the barren Afar district, and a portion of northern Amhara (Figure 2). Whether this expansion was seen more as a gift to what Italians called la colonia primogenita—that is, Eritrea—or as a pragmatic move toward a cohesive Tigrinya-speaking administrative unit within the AOI, the result was a complete change in the character of the province. “The ‘Eritrean colony’ has disappeared,” began an internal memo of 1936. It continued:
Eritrea is in the midst of a remarkable awakening with the advent of fascism and fascist governors… . For the first time, local problems—the development of indigenous agriculture and of the natives’ livelihoods—are in the foreground. Afterward … [we will begin] agricultural colonization of an industrial type… . [Old] Eritrea is a small, rugged country … [with] too many possibilities for such a small territory, and … [it is] almost completely impossible to resolve the territory's two main problems: that of the indigenous population and [Italian] settlement.13
Produced soon after the conquest, this memo, titled “La Nuova Eritrea,” described how the metropole might better engage with and accommodate the inherent problems of this newly expanded colony.14 The expansion of Italian territory in East Africa was a means to an end for settler colonialism. New Eritrea would fulfill what Old Eritrea could not, serving as a springboard for industrial agriculture and secure Italian settlement. Public works expenditures show that Italian authorities sought to integrate the new with the old and to run their new colony more efficiently through improved infrastructure, including paved roads, electric grids, and aqueducts.15
Asmara remained the colony's crown jewel and primary economic engine. There, and in other colonial cities where Italian settlement was high, society was racially segregated. The built environment largely reflected this policy.16 However, by the time of Eritrea's enlargement in the late 1930s, Italians were beginning to place new emphasis on the welfare of their African colonial urban subjects, with huge projects such as markets, slaughterhouses, and hospitals built specifically for the indigeni.17 As noted by historian Gianluca Podesta, Italy's colonial policies from 1935 to 1941 were unusual for the quantity and quality of overseas investments. Some 10 percent of total Italian government spending went into the AOI, where funds were disproportionately allocated for projects in New Eritrea.18
Italian colonial social policy was one of “divide and conquer,” and also the appeasement of the local populations. Muslims were granted privileged status under colonial rule, in contrast to the discriminatory anti-Muslim policies of the Ethiopian Empire under Haile Selassie and his predecessors. Such favor toward Islam was a basic feature of Italian colonial policy, and it rankled many non-Muslims in the colonies.19 Mussolini, with some honesty and apparent delight, conspicuously took the title “protettore Islam” (defender of Islam), a term hitherto reserved for medieval caliphs who protected Mecca and Medina from invasion. Muslims took advantage of Italian leniency and infrastructure to make the hajj—the pilgrimage to Mecca—and proclaimed their loyalty in gratitude.20 In New Eritrea, Muslims made up less than 30 percent of the population, so Italian favoritism toward them was conspicuous. We can see it, among other places, in Italy's budgetary allocations for the colony. In 1939 and 1940, at least four new mosques were built and the tomb of an important Shiite saint was restored.21 Whatever its specific rationale, this favoritism served to divide the country's populace while creating a fiercely loyal constituency among a formerly marginalized group.
At the same time, the Italians tried their best to cultivate the goodwill of the Christian majority in Eritrea and Tigray, not only through public works but also by restoring and building new churches. They recruited officials of the Orthodox Church, especially from Tigray, to promote their colonial enterprise. They even developed a plan to detach the Ethiopian church from the Alexandrian patriarchate of which it was a part and put it under the papacy, making it an Oriental-rite Catholic denomination.22 Presumably this proposed ecclesiastical bond was intended to rid the colony of suspicious foreign ties (particularly to Egypt, then under British rule) and ensure the loyalty of the often-influential clergy. In 1939 and 1940, at least six Orthodox churches were newly built or restored, including Abreha wa-Atsbeha.23 Although not as maligned as Muslims were during Ethiopian imperial rule, Tigrayan Christians had been regarded with suspicion by the Amhara-dominated court.24 When the Italians invaded the Tigrayan highlands from Eritrea in 1935, they immediately set about distributing food and emancipating slaves, in the process winning over many of their once-oppressed new subjects.25
When it came to building houses of worship for Italian settler colonists in New Eritrea, the Italian government had grand aspirations. One of the few of these to be realized was located in Massawa, Eritrea's deepwater port and one of Italy's major colonial settlements. From 1938 to 1940, as part of a larger urban development scheme, builders erected a massive and highly expensive cross-domed cathedral for Italian settlers in that city.26 An article published in 1937 in the Milan-based architectural magazine Casabella included renderings and plans of still-grander churches, complete with campaniles, for all the major cities of Italian East Africa, all in a characteristic Fascist minimalist-rationalist style (Figure 3).27 Intended for places such as Gondar and Addis Ababa, these proposed projects illustrate the hopeful visions Italians had for their new colony, before the messy realities of the occupation set in. None of them were built.
Italian rule in East Africa was always somewhat tenuous. Asmara, Eritrea, and a few other urbanized areas were the colony's focal points, and the only reasonably safe, secure places therein. Italian control over the region's highland center was loose at best.28 Highland urban projects outside Eritrea were mostly quasi-military settlements because of the potential for Ethiopian insurgency. The Italian army maintained 250,000 troops in the colony for the duration of its brief, five-year occupation.29 This contributed to high costs, and these made the practice of settler colonialism unpopular among the lower classes back home in Italy. For this and other reasons, by 1938, Italian authorities in Ethiopia had largely given up their plans for an industrial economy and fallen back on tenant farming and indigenous agriculture.30 Large architectural projects were left unrealized, and settler colonialism never grew beyond a small scale.
In short, the colony as a whole was unviable and functioned mainly as a drain on Italy's larger economy. For a few years, however, Italians imagined that their colony would be permanent, and vestiges of their unrealized goals abound. Hopeful visions of a New Eritrea characterized by a loyal indigenous populace and clerical unity remain in the neo-Renaissance façade of the church of Abreha wa-Atsbeha.
The Church of Abreha wa-Atsbeha and Its Modern Restorations
The town of Abreha wa-Atsbeha is a nondescript highland farming village in East Tigray, 15 kilometers from Wukro, a major urban center. When one approaches the town by car or bus, the white façade of its church comes into view as soon as one passes the numerous euphorbia groves surrounding it (Figure 4). The church of Abreha wa-Atsbeha, once host to a monastic community, is today a parish church. It was carved directly into a red sandstone cliff escarpment, probably in the tenth or eleventh century. Its plan, combining cruciform basilican and centralized features, is found in only two other churches in Ethiopia (Figure 5).31 The bays are defined by engaged crossbeams and chamfered piers with stepped capitals, although the transept and the apse are barrel-vaulted. The ceiling of the crossing space is raised higher than the surrounding bays and is crowned with an engaged monolithic cross supported by cruciform compound piers (Figure 6). Immediately east of the crossing is the choir (qeddest), which is surmounted with a cupola atop a low bema. The church terminates on its east end in a semicircular apse (maqdas) with a synthronon, or curved bench, connected to domed pastophoria (side chambers now containing extra altars but likely intended either as storage spaces or as preparatory rooms for the Eucharistic gifts) on either side that communicate via doorways with both the choir and the lateral aisles. The vaults and ceilings, currently in a bad state of repair, are ornamented with sculpted reliefs dating from the church's earliest days.
The church front as seen today was built in 1939 by Giuseppe Miari, chief engineer of Eritrea, at the cost of 20,000 lira (Figure 7).32 It consists of a whitewashed vestibule, entered through either of two round arches, standing atop a flight of stone steps; the façade is adorned with three bands of stringcourses and three roundels. Flanking the façade base are two quoins made of embossed cement but with the appearance of ashlar masonry. The inner vestibule structure is from a prior restoration and is made of local rubble stabilized with mud infill set into a timber framework. Its interior measures 6 meters by 3.2 meters.
Miari's was not the first modern restoration of this church. During the reign of Emperor Yohannes IV of Ethiopia (1872–89), the vestibule was rebuilt or restored.33 Covering its walls are paintings made during the time of Yohannes's restoration (discussed below); paintings of the same type and vintage also adorn the westernmost bays of the main vessel. The nineteenth-century restorers also built a new and narrower two-arched entrance leading into the nave, supported by two interior buttresses made of rubble, mud, and heavy timbers (Figure 8). The building's original rock-hewn narthex was likely similar to the configurations found at the ancient rock-hewn churches of Wukro Cherqos and Mika'el Amba, where in each case a square room was built around a centrally placed pier. In the case of Abreha wa-Atsbeha, however, this room collapsed sometime before the early nineteenth century and was thus rebuilt (or reworked) under Yohannes.34 Removing the remains of the middle pillar and expanding the main portal of the church, Yohannes's restoration improved the church's interior lighting and made the space more accessible to Tigrayan pilgrims—an important consideration during feast days, especially that of the saint kings Abreha and Atsbeha, for whom the church is now named. Comparatively speaking, the Italian restoration of 1939 was more modest and superficial than the far more substantial renovations conducted under Yohannes and his predecessors.
Restored in the past twenty years, the nineteenth-century paintings that adorn the narthex and nave walls are of the so-called Second Gondarine style. Characteristics of this style include a yellow ground, extensive use of blue pigment, subtle shading, and representations of figures wearing exaggeratedly layered garments of recognizable Indian manufacture.35 The complex iconographic program is labeled in Ge‘ez, the ancient language of the region preserved by the clergy for liturgical use (akin to “church Latin” in Europe). Contained in this program are scenes from the lives of the saints Abreha and Atsbeha, the emperor Yohannes and his retinue, and popular local saints.
Yohannes IV was the first and last Tigrayan-ethnic Ethiopian emperor after the so-called Era of Princes, during which time the kingdom lacked any strong central authority.36 His reign was characterized by a centralization of power in Tigray, fervent Christian orthodoxy, and violent crusading against non-Christian peoples—all of which resulted in the overall militarization of the Christian highlands.37
The twin brothers Abreha and Atsbeha were two earlier kings (during the fourth century, according to local beliefs) who were later canonized and allegedly entombed within the church that now bears their names. While their hagiography dates from the nineteenth century and appears to have been based on false evidence, these saints had a popular following in Tigray prior to the nineteenth century. In fact, they were probably conflations of various historical figures from the Late Antique, Christianized, Tigrayan highland kingdom of Aksum.38
Along the south wall of the church's vestibule are scenes from the lives of Abreha and Atsbeha. Viewed from east to west, these show the twins’ parents, King Sayfa Ar'ad and Queen Sofya, followed by an image of them suckling at their mother's breasts as two unnamed caretakers peer out from behind her (Figure 9). Images of the infant twins being breast-fed may refer to the archangel Michael's order that they obey the Lord by consuming nothing but breast milk for their first five years.39 The next scene shows the twins being baptized by John the Baptist; Christ's bust ensconced in a mandorla confirms the act with a sign of benediction.40 Meanwhile, Abba Salama (Frumentius, the first bishop of Ethiopia) further blesses the baptism with a handheld cross. Next to Abba Salama, priests shake sistra (percussion instruments akin to maracas, used in the liturgy) while facing one another and singing antiphons. Below these priests are portraits of Ethiopian saints and Old Testament figures: Adam and Eve (from whom Abreha and Atsbeha were directly descended, according to their hagiography); Ewostatewos (Eustathius in Greek), a fourteenth-century monastic leader known for introducing the Christian Sabbath to Ethiopia, with cross and rosary in hand; the one-legged Takla Haymanot, another canonized monastic leader; and Gabra Manfas Qeddus, a desert hermit saint in his hair shirt.41 The presence of these saints alongside Abreha and Atsbeha serves to integrate and legitimate them as new regional saints within a longer lineage and broader canon of popular Ethiopian Christianity.
The twin kings’ story continues on the west wall of the south aisle, where Old Testament scenes appear alongside one of Abreha and Atsbeha healing the sick through the distribution of holy wine.42 On the north wall of the north nave aisle is an image of Emperor Yohannes IV and his wife, Woleta Selassie, both made to look larger than life by masses of Indian garments and crowns as they travel in a mounted procession with the reigning Alexandrian patriarch (Figure 10). The scene is made sacred by the presence above them of Christ in Epiphany. Placing images of Abreha and Atsbeha, and Christ, alongside those of Yohannes and his wife was a way of linking the modern king to the ancient saints whose church he had restored. The portrayal of these earthly rulers in this sacred setting is an indication of the increasing centralization of power by monarchs in nineteenth-century Ethiopia.43 Further, these representations effectively show Yohannes as a divinely legitimated defender of the faith. Indeed, this is how he saw himself. Steadfastly religious, like the legendary kings Abreha and Atsbeha, he forcibly converted many pagans and Muslims living in his domains.44
The Ethiopian studies scholar Susanne Hummel has written that the hagiography of Abreha and Atsbeha was fabricated sometime during the mid-nineteenth century.45 Accounts left by Annesley and Salt confirm that the medieval church was named for the twin kings by the early nineteenth century, if not earlier, yet Yohannes's restoration of it represented a watershed for the development of their cult. According to Salt, the two kings were buried in the domed eastern chambers of the church.46 This had long been a local legend, yet Yohannes's decision to rededicate the church to them made it a locus for their veneration, and this carried powerful political undertones. The saint kings’ hagiography by this time was related to disputes around the antiquity of Tigrayan monasteries, which northern peoples claimed were much older than those of the southern highlands.47 The saints’ cult, based in Tigray rather than in the country's south, represented a Tigrayan-nationalist impulse in line with Yohannes's other imperial policies. As the first Tigrayan king since antiquity, he used this cult to help consolidate his power in Tigray, rather than in Shoa in the southern highlands. This followed upon the Gadl (vitae) of Abreha and Atsbeha, which included specific reference to the subjugation of Shoa (the burgeoning political center of the southern highlands) by the saint kings.48
Yohannes was known for his interest in history as well as his frequent use of it to serve his own ends. He was, for instance, crowned at Aksum, the ancient capital of Ethiopia, which by the nineteenth century had otherwise ceased to be a regular place of coronation.49 By updating this ancient church with a new narthex and iconographic program, Yohannes tied himself conspicuously to Tigrayan antiquity, to the church's founders, and to the saint kings allegedly buried within. By modifying this cult site, Yohannes channeled the popular piety directed toward the two saints into the newly renovated church—making it a new pilgrimage center in Tigray—and, ultimately, toward himself.
Historicizing Ethiopia on Italian Terms
In 1939, the Adigrat regional government encountered at Abreha wa-Atsbeha a church that had been restored just fifty years earlier. From outside, the vestibule of Yohannes's campaign was the most visible part of the building, and the murals inside would still have looked relatively fresh. The Italian restoration was in fact a comparatively limited project—a new face for an otherwise functional church. The double-arched, square-piered, roundel-clad entry added by Miari has no Ethiopian precedent.50 Instead, it bears a distinct resemblance to Italian forerunners such as ancient Roman triumphal arches or Renaissance arcades like that at Filippo Brunelleschi's Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence (Figure 11).
Historic revival styles were prevalent in Fascist Italy, a way of linking the modern regime to the peninsula's glorious past cultures. Roman revival designs, for instance, were used to great effect, as at the Foro Mussolini, a vast sports complex built north of Rome between 1928 and 1938. Revival-style architecture was also employed in Italy's colonies. In Libya, a type of “Saracenic” revival was used for public works, while in Rhodes, Gothic Revival buildings were intended to link the Italian administration to the medieval Knights of Rhodes.51 In Eritrea, elements evoking Ethiopia's Late Antique and medieval cultural heritage were used in imperially funded churches such as that of Degghi Selam in Asmara. There a decorative frieze on the church's west façade and the use of half-timbering throughout evoked esteemed historical precedents such as Dabra Damo and the funerary stela in Aksum.52
Like the ancient Romans before them, Italian Fascists built triumphal arches to commemorate their imperial victories.53 In antiquity, these were placed along key roadways in the empire's cities, projecting imperial authority and serving as backdrops for ceremonies and processions.54 Mussolini erected a massive Renaissance revival–style triumphal arch in Mogadishu, capital of Italian Somaliland, in 1928 to commemorate a recent visit by the Duke of Savoy (Figure 12).55 In Addis Ababa, capital of Italian East Africa, a single-arch monument erected in 1936 commemorated Italy's conquest of that territory. The double arches used at Abreha wa-Atsbeha may have been intended to evoke the triumphal arch type, signaling Italy's triumph in this region and the displacement of Yohannes and the native sovereignty his works represented.
Giuseppe Miari, who led the façade restoration at Abreha wa-Atsbeha, is not a well-known figure in Italian history, although he was a prolific architect-engineer in East Africa.56 Miari got his start engineering pontoon bridges on the Isonzo front during World War I.57 Like many in Italy, he saw opportunity in the huge public works projects planned for Italy's African and Mediterranean colonies. He went first to Rhodes and then to Eritrea, where he eventually became the chief engineer of public works.58 His stylistically eclectic projects generally followed the prevailing historically tinged minimalist modernism of the Fascist period. His Casa del Fascio in Asmara (headquarters for the local Fascist party), completed during the late 1930s, is characteristic (Figure 13).59 The building's Fascist identity was proclaimed by the text on its front façade, the large simplified fasces (an ancient Roman symbol of power revived during Mussolini's time) built into its sides, and the portrait of Mussolini sided with fasces at its top. Miari's headquarters building for the Lloyd Triestino shipping company in Assab, Eritrea, by contrast, employed pointed “Saracenic”-style arches at the ground level with large square voids immediately above (Figure 14). Although less ideologically loaded than the Casa del Fascio in Asmara, this building shared its minimalism, even while including historicist elements (the pointed arches).
The more purely historicist approach taken at Abreha wa-Atsbeha was anomalous for Miari, and its use raises questions. Indeed, had the Italians wanted to revise the nineteenth-century façade merely to erase the vestiges of a former Tigrayan leader's campaign, the stark minimalism found at Miari's other Ethiopian and Eritrean projects would have been sufficient, less costly, and less potentially controversial. Miari's Italian Renaissance revival façade thus complicates this building and its message.
As architectural historian D. Medina Lasansky has shown, Fascist authorities in Italy liked to portray the Renaissance as Italianita: part of the nation's unadulterated cultural heritage, a source of national pride, and something to be used for propagandistic aims.60 The Renaissance as we know it means the revival of the past, in terms of both historical citation and reflexive engagement with a historical canon.61 Along these lines, Italian authorities noted Abreha wa-Atsbeha's antiquity and represented it as “una antica Chiesa Copti.”62 By giving the church a Renaissance-style front, one that evokes an ancient Roman triumphal arch, they effectively canonized this church as a product of Italianita. The new façade, foreign to the Tigrayan populace, appeared to the colonizers as a familiar and heavily loaded bit of Italian cultural heritage. The restoration Romanized the church and turned it into a provincial site of a resurgent imperial Italy. Likewise, Fascist authorities in Siena and Florence appropriated various medieval and Renaissance buildings through modifications and new functions and used them to serve their own utilitarian and propagandistic ends. But these buildings stood on the Italian peninsula, and so their “Italianness” was never really in question. Abreha wa-Atsbeha, in contrast, stood on far more remote and shaky—militarily, politically, ideologically—ground.63 Claiming this medieval church in New Eritrea as a part of Italian history and culture, and thereby part of the larger Fascist empire, meant giving it a new Italian face.
Mussolini thought of colonialism much as the ancient Romans had. For him and his followers, the colony was not merely a site for resource extraction or the sale and distribution of goods manufactured in the metropole; it was also a springboard for Italian civilization. Eritrea's roads were viae romanae, and its urban centers were coloniae.64 Tigray was to be a new Eritrean province of the mother country. As noted above, Italian authorities were engaged in talks with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, seeking to put in place a direct union between it and the papacy. Just as Ethiopian Orthodoxy might become an Oriental-rite Catholic denomination, so might a new Italianate façade bring Abreha wa-Atsbeha into the Italian cultural canon and make clear the unbreakable union between colony and colonizer.
Abreha wa-Atsbeha represented in microcosm the uniting of Fascist imperial civilization with Tigrayan antiquity. Like Yohannes's earlier appropriation of the site through his restorations and the inclusion there of his own image, Miari's 1939 campaign projected onto the church a new political and cultural authority through the façade's explicitly Italianate form. By adding the 1939 façade, conspicuously foreign in appearance, the Fascist authorities literally and figuratively covered Yohannes's efforts with an Italian face. In doing so, they subsumed and reappropriated the cultic eminence of the monument, renewing the saint kings’ cultic popularity on Italy's own terms.