The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Wednesday 17th February 2010

The Ancient Churches of Ethiopia

Given by - Dr David Phillipson

Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan


The puzzle is highly academic. But no less an interesting puzzle for being so. Where does Lalibela lie in the historical scheme of things? Its four groups of thirteen churches are a mystery. Who built them and why? Do they initiate or follow a cultural tradition? And if the latter, whose cultural tradition?

To help shed light on these questions, who better than Professor David Phillipson, recently retired professor of African archaeology at the University of Cambridge. David Phillipson has given the matter a great deal of thought. He opts for cultural continuity. One way or another Lalibela is a legacy of Aksum, a first area of settlement in Ethiopia, 150 mountainous miles north. He declared: "I hope to persuade you that there was far greater cultural continuity with external sources. After the sixth to eighth centuries, internal developments in Ethiopia played a greater role than hitherto supposed."

There seems to be little direct connection between Aksum and Lalibela: little writing, few inscriptions. But this applies over much of Ethiopia: a uniform culture with apparently little inter-connectivity. As an aside, one should not underestimate the power of pilgrimage. Ethiopians love to walk, and they do. Unfortunately, few, if any, historical pilgrimages have been recorded.

The rise and demise of Lalibela, as an imperial capital, seems to have taken place in total obscurity. And when the awesome wonder of the world that is Lalibela was at last gazed upon by a European in the 1520s, its visitor, the dumbstruck Portuguese priest Francisco Alvares, did not expect himself to be believed: "I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more.......I swear by God, in Whose power I am, that all I have written is the truth".

Much more is known about Aksum. David Phillipson took us through the rise and decline of the Aksumite empire from first to seventh centuries AD. In pagan times Aksum exported ivory - a trade facilitated by maritime capability in the Erythrean (Red) sea through the port of Adulis. Aksum then seems to have become the focal point of pre-Christian migration from South Arabia. This migration is magnificently immortalised by the stele field, at the north western end of town, ascribed to the late third century AD. After Ezana's conversion to Christianity, circa 333 AD, the Aksumite empire developed and spread its wings.

Professor Phillipson referred to gold, silver and copper coinage minted in Aksum. This coinage has been found as far away as India - and, indeed, Indian coins were found in 1940 at Debre Damo (see News File Summer 2007, 'An Introduction to Axumite Coinage' by our member, Vincent West). No hint of isolation here. In fact Aksum's writ extended way beyond the town itself: the twenty Aksumite kings commemorated in the coinage variably ruled as far as Sudan in the west, Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea to the North as well as Saba across the Red Sea in the East.

But Aksum fell into decline. As our lecturer noted, Aksum's King Kaleb (early sixth century AD) seems to have over-extended himself. The empire disintegrated. Aksumite coinage began to peter out. Ethiopia's mantle of Christianity gloriously passed to Lalibela.

But a Lalibela that, as stated, rose and fell in splendid isolation. What links Lalibela to Aksum? Church architecture - the area of Professor Phillipson's special expertise. Our speaker noted that five developmental stages can be discerned. In the first three of them, Aksumite features are absent. In the fourth stage, in the church of Bete Maryam, Aksumite features pre-dominate. Bete Mikael and Bete Golgotha, the final stage, are totally Aksumite.

This of course raises further questions. Which Church was built when? And by whom? We simply do not know. Unless further evidence materialises, this will always be a matter of speculation.

The link to Aksumite construction lies in the use of layers of timber extending out beyond the church structures they support. Ethiopians call this feature 'monkey heads'. Near Aksum, monkey heads adorn the sixth century monastery of Debre Damo; near Lalibela, the phenomenon is replicated in the church of Yimrahane Kristos, whose conventional twelfth century date, our speaker thought was "somewhat too recent". Certain Lalibela churches exhibit monkey heads in stone. In the medium of stone, the feature is of course cosmetic rather than structural. Nevertheless, its use extends a sympathy to Aksumite design.

What we do know, as our speaker pointed out, is that Lalibela, this hidden conglomeration of wondrous churches, was built in the Zagwe dynasty. The dynasty lasted two to three hundred years. Known Zagwe emperors include: Yimrahane Kristos, Gebre Maryam, Gebre Meskel, known as Lalibela, Neakuto Leab, and Yitbarek followed by Delanda. Thereafter, Yekuno Amlak is credited with restoring the Solomonic line (circa 1270).

The Society is very grateful that it can attract an academic of Professor Phillipson's stature to speak to us. We were treated to a fascinating evening and look forward to welcoming him again. Readers may like to know of his recent book on the subject.

Ancient Churches of Ethiopia by David W Phillipson, published by Yale University Press, London, 2009.
230 pages; 285 x 230mm; numerous plates and drawings
Hardback ISBN: 9780300141566
Price £40.00

First Published in News File Summer 2010

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