The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Book Review - The Story of Däräsge Maryam
Reviewer - Jacopo Gnisci
Probably not many people in the world know about the nineteenth century church of Deresge Maryam, and even fewer will know as much about it as Dorothea McEwan does. Dorothea, in fact, has been working on Deresge Maryam for several years, and has already published a short study on one of its illuminated manuscripts in 2007. So who better than Dorothea to introduce readers to the fascinating history of this church as well as to its beautiful wall paintings?
Deresge Maryam stands to the south-west of the Semien National Park, and can be reached in less than a day's drive on the all-weather road that runs across the Semen Mountains and begins in Debark. In the first section of the book Dorothea lays out the historical context within which Deresge Maryam was built. The story of Deresge, Dorothea tells us, is very much intertwined with the dramatic history of Webe, a local a powerful regional chief of the Semien area who commissioned the construction of the church. Webe wanted to become Negus, and in order to achieve his ambition he needed a church in which to be crowned and someone to crown him. So, he had Deresge Maryam built, and he paid a large sum of money to have a new bishop sent from Alexandria to Ethiopia.
However, things did not go as Webe had hoped. Having been defeated in battle by Tewodros II (r. 1855-1868) in 1855, Webe was forced to witness the man who had defeated him being crowned in his own church by the bishop he had paid to come from Alexandria. Interestingly, according to Dorothea, a painting at the bottom of the eastern wall inside the church - in which Webe is represented and is identifiable thanks to an inscription - may represent the defeated chief witnessing the procession which took place before or after the coronation of Tewodros II.
The core of the book consists of two sections. The first analyzes the architecture of the church and its compound. The second offers a detailed description and examination of the beautiful wall paintings which decorate the four outer walls of the sanctuary. The presence of four fold-outs, each one reproducing one of the four walls as a whole, helps the reader get an idea of the overall decoration of the church. These two sections are followed by two smaller, but equally interesting, chapters devoted respectively to the treasures kept within the church, and to some nearby churches.
The book is written with clarity and insight. It is accessible and engaging at the same time, and it will be of interest to the general reader as well as to scholars. I am sure that those of you who wish to find out more about the fascinating story of Webe, and of Deresge Maryam and its wall paintings, are already looking for a copy of the book!
The Story of Däräsge Maryam