The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - The Ancient Churches of Tigrai

Claude Lepage & Jacques Mercier

Reviewer - Suzie Grant


What a pleasure to find this recent publication – a co-operation between France and Ethiopia – which could well inspire Society members to visit these historic churches. Having twice visited the area already this book had me thinking about a third trip! Aimed at tourists, students, guides and scholars alike it combines photographs, plans and text (in both French and English) and is the sort of book you can dip into for five minutes and dip out again an hour later!

It is the latest, and the first for a long time, of publications stemming from the list of some 120 rock-hewn churches which was brought to the attention of the outside world in 1966 by Dr Abba Tewelde Medhen Josief, an Ethiopian Catholic priest from Adigrat. This list of churches, many of which the priest had visited and measured, fostered around 10 years of ferengi exploration – the start of scholarly tourism in the region. Sadly this was brought to a close in 1975 due to the political situation. From this time tourists and historians have published the records of their findings in variety of ways.

Lepage and Mercier have both travelled extensively in the area and have clearly realised the danger that this heritage site is in. The book serves as a study, a report and a cry of alarm. Written in a style as captivating as a travel narrative both art historians and the general public are able to broaden their appreciation of these churches.

We start with a helpful and colourful map of the region with access roads and altitudes clearly marked. The whereabouts of the churches discussed are also indicated, although a tourist would be hard pushed to find some of the churches without a local guide using only this as an aid!

Following a brief introduction to the Axumite civilisation the authors go on to discuss the churches chronologically and divide them into three sections – Post Axumite Churches 7th-11th centuries, The Monastic Renaissance 13th-16th centuries and Monks and Princes 17th-19th centuries.

Section 1 incorporates some excellent plans and photos and discusses all the churches known to remain from this period. The authors see this as a period when a very specific architectural style blossomed alongside the early development of Christianity and was supported by strong political forces. These early churches are also funerary structures. They suggest that the emphasis on the construction using masons and the post-Axumite techniques employed could be a result of the healthy economic climate arising from the transportation of salt.

Section 2 deals with an upsurge of Christianity, even re-Christianisation, and a period of monastic renewal during the late 13th and early 14th centuries. At this time rigorous young monks went out and founded communities in an attempt to return to a simple evangelical life. These churches, hewn out of the soft sandstone, lack the craftsmanship of the earlier churches built by masons. In fact we learn that the most celebrated of the church builders – Abreham – finished his church and it immediately fell down! But the purpose of these churches was rather spiritual and visionary and the paintings – sometimes executed at the same time as the construction – were to inspire and teach. Many of these churches are found on top of the cliffs of Garalta though the authors feel that this was less to protect from marauding soldiers or pagans and more as an escape from the world of men. An exception to this is the remarkable church of Abuna Yemata at Guh. Hewn out of a vertical sided needle of rock its position is clearly defensive and during periods of conflict villagers would have sheltered in the church. The book devotes quite a few pages to explanations and interpretations of the paintings at Guh – in fact a detail of the saint Abuna Yemata on horseback, after whom the church is named – features on the cover. This church is certainly one of the most exciting places I have visited in Ethiopia. Quite apart from its stunning situation and wonderfully preserved paintings, the dramatic handhold and foothold climb up some 10 vertical metres to get there takes some beating.

Section 3 covers the period from the invasion of Tigrai by the ruler of Harar known as Gragn in the 16th century until the 19th century. During this time many built churches were pillaged and burnt though the Garalta and parts of the eastern edge of the plateau pretty much escaped. Photographs of the church of Yohannes Maaqudi clearly illustrate a painting style which demonstrates much less mastery of line and composition than those of Guh – a century and a half earlier. It seems that the system of training painters during that period had broken down. However, that is not to say that these paintings do not have an absolute charm of their own. The influence of two Gondarine styles on the paintings at Abuna-Garima at Sella is explained before finally we are shown the delightful 19th century paintings at Papaseyti, Ara and Abreha-Atsbeha.

A fourth and final section discusses the geology of the region, its volcanic origins and the opening of the Ethiopian rift, which caused the rise of the high plateaus, now a hallmark of Ethiopia. An understanding of the stunning landscape of the region helps to shed light on the prolific number of historic churches; adequate water supplies and the quality of sandstone were determining factors in the concentration of places of worship here. Interestingly, in optimum conditions one man could hew perhaps one cubic metre per day; therefore a small church, such as Daniel Qorqor, might take four men only six months to complete.

Finally there are 62 notes referred to in the text and a general bibliography.

My only criticism of the book is the brief descriptions of the whereabouts of certain churches such as Abuna Gerima at Sella. Twice I have failed to find this church and Lepage and Mercier, clear though their instructions are, make it no easier! Perhaps too an index would have been helpful.

The book is too big to just put in your pocket but could easily fit in a rucksack and accompany a visitor to the churches. It is a very welcome addition to the publications surrounding this extraordinary heritage and let us hope that its timely arrival on the bookshelves will reach a wide audience and help to protect and safeguard this unique and magnificent site from further damage. It is a pity though that it does not seem to widely available yet in the UK bookshops.

The Ancient Churches of Tigrai by Claude Lepage and Jacques Mercier, published by Adpf, Paris, 2005.
Softback, 247 pages, illustrated.
ISBN: 2865382990
Price 38 euros

First Published in News File Summer 2006

Opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of the Society.
Information is offered in good faith but the Society does not warrant the status or reliability of the information contained.

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