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Revolutionary Churches Hewn from Rock

Posted On July 13, 2020 | 10:00 am | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Mikael Muehlbauer identifies medieval churches in Ethiopia that evoke a lost Byzantium

Mikael Muehlbauer, who earned his PhD in art history and archaeology from Columbia University in May 2020, was a recent junior fellow in Byzantine Studies. His research report, “‘Bastions of the Cross’: Medieval Rock-Cut Cruciform Churches of Tigray, Ethiopia,” compared the only three medieval Ethiopian churches built with an aisled cruciform plan, suggesting they had ties to Fatimid Egypt and the late antique Byzantine empire.


Q&A with Mikael Muehlbauer

What is a rock-cut church, and why haven’t scholars studied the ones in Tigray? 

Rock-cut or rock-hewn churches are carved out of stone rather than built. The mechanics behind their construction are completely different from freestanding architecture. In terms of physical properties, a hewn church is actually more akin to a piece of sculpture.

In Ethiopia there was a long interregnum for Western research between the 1974 communist revolution and the opening up of the country in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. Few scholars were allowed enter the country during that period, and while there are more Ethiopian scholars working on this material today, thankfully, that wasn’t the case then. As a result, Ethiopia was never really able to enter into Western academic conversations, and remains arguably the most understudied part of the eastern Christian world.

The little attention that has been paid to medieval architecture in Ethiopia has largely dealt with the famous Lalibela complex of eleven rock-hewn churches in the central highlands of Ethiopia. These are easy to access and enigmatic, carved in the round like freestanding sculptures. By contrast, where I work in Tigray, the churches are very spread out and access is more difficult because it’s extremely rural. And because the churches remain in use, local needs are rightly foregrounded, rather than those of the researchers.


Why are these churches revolutionary? 

Ethiopia had a great building tradition in late antiquity, akin to the architectural legacy left by the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean. As a result, medieval architecture in Ethiopia has tended to be very conservative, drawing from a local architectural vocabulary. The churches I study throw much of that out the window. 

For example, churches in Ethiopia are always basilicas—essentially a long hallway terminating in a sanctuary. Those basilicas have either what we call a pyramidal section (the center vessel is raised, with lower ceilings on either side) or with all ceilings of uniform height (called a hall church). 

The churches I study in Tigray, which I have dated to the second half of the eleventh century, have a unique plan. They are a local type of aisled cruciform church, a wholly Ethiopian invention. Unlike a basilica, the space is centered on the core of the building, which has raised ceilings. Moreover, these churches use barrel vaults, the first found in Ethiopia (aside from a few vaulted antique tombs). As such, the churches incorporate three levels of spatial hierarchy—totally against all tenets of Ethiopian architecture up until this point. All these unique features point to a revolution in Ethiopian architecture. Because of the newfound political and economic stability afforded by their alliance with Fatimid Egypt, patrons of churches began to request larger and more innovative buildings.


How do the churches you study reflect Byzantine ideas?

I find the churches deliberately draw from archaic Byzantine architecture unseen in the Mediterranean since the sixth century. In late antiquity, a powerful Ethiopian state called Aksum was Byzantium’s main ally in the maritime silk trade. Merchants from India carrying silk and spices regularly stopped over in Ethiopia’s port of Adulis before going on to the Red Sea ports in Byzantine Egypt. After the Islamic conquests, Byzantium and Ethiopia were entirely cut off from one another. It was only in the late eleventh century, as a result of increased contact and infrastructural support from Egypt, that Ethiopian pilgrims were able once again to make pilgrimages to Byzantine lands such as Constantinople and Cyprus. 

I think one reason for this program of deliberate archaizing was to facilitate the movement of pilgrims through the church. Aisled cruciform churches in sixth-century Byzantium were designed to propel visitors around the church via a system of aisles. Perhaps the reinvention of this plan was part of a movement to build new pilgrimage centers in Tigray. On a more theoretical level, it is important to keep in mind that these churches were being built in a period of new prosperity and security in the region, unseen since late antiquity. I think the Ethiopian hatsanis (small kings or chieftains who emerged from the power vacuum after the collapse of Aksum) in Tigray had a kind of nostalgia for Mediterranean late antiquity because they saw it as a reflection of their present circumstances. In creating new aisled cruciform churches, unseen since the age of Justinian, the Ethiopian sovereigns reimagined a late antique “golden age” in their own image.


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.