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Ethiopian devotions.

Christianity arrived in Ethiopia in the fourth century AD and its presence is still strongly felt in the astonishing architecture of the rock churches, in paintings and in ancient rituals that connect the population with history and place.

Ethiopia's recent history of dictatorship, civil war and humanitarian disasters, and its geographical and political isolation (Ethiopia has never been colonized, although it was occupied by Italy between 1935 and '41) has meant that its spectacularly rich and distinct cultures are little known in the West. But that is changing. There is a modest building boom in the capital, Addis Ababa; Western organizations and businesses, encouraged by Ethiopia's new democratic government are investing heavily in the country. Strategic reasons for investment are excellent -- Ethiopia has developed a reputation for African diplomacy (the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the EGA, is based in Addis) and it is geographically close to the Middle East -- but establishing how to build in an economic and environmentally sustainable way is difficult. Western styles and techniques are generally not appropriate, and although Ethiopians are quick to absorb Western goods and culture, global might and a degree of ignorance could prevent this from being an entirely equitable exchange. Ethiopia is the third poorest country in the world, and is currently in famine, but it is culturally rich (it has seven World Heritage Sites), and endowed with extraordinary building traditions (although, admittedly, this is not immediately visible in Addis Ababa). If ever there was a moral, let alone aesthetic, imperative for the idea of Critical Regionalism, it is here.

Although Ethiopia was isolated for over ten centuries, the ancient civilization at Aksum, which has been described as the last known great civilization of antiquity, was based on exchange and trade. Aksum was on important trading routes between Arabia, the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, and was a thriving metropolis between the first and seventh centuries AD. It supported a monarchy and a considerable elite class, and developed a fine stone architecture that fused imported ideas such as Egyptian formal planning with local skills and traditions.

Twenty-first century Aksum, which is in the far north of present day Ethiopia, on the Eritrean border, is now a rather ordinary, if charming, market town. Evidence of the recent civil war is all too obvious; rusting tanks lie abandoned on the road side, uneasily contrasting with the otherwise timeless rural way of life. It is hard to imaging what the ancient city would have been like -- it is estimated that 98 per cent of it lies unexcavated beneath the modern town -- but the grandeur and extraordinary building skills can be seen in a few of the known sites, in particular the tombs and the stelae. The main stelae field, effectively a royal graveyard, has around 120 monolithic granite stelae (flat obelisks), of various sizes and types. The simplest are rough menhirs, some are polished, but the finest, the ones particular to Aksum, are intricately carved.

Unfortunately, little is known about them -- how or why they were constructed, the rituals associated with them, how they relate to the adjacent tombs, or Aksumite life in general. There have been some excellent archaeological programmes (the most recent led by Cambridge University between 1993 and '97), but not surprisingly, responding to civil war and famine has taken precedence over archaeological research.

Of the three principal decorated stelae, only one remains standing in situ. It is quite breathtaking -- 23m high, a single granite stone, carved to resemble a stylized multi-storey tower. Nine 'floors' of expressed windows, doors and circular tie beam details (known as monkey heads) protrude from the surface of the granite. It is simple, precise and exudes dignified power. Carving is sharp and crisp, as if contemporary, despite being constructed over 16 centuries ago and the stylized details (presumed, like classical triglyphs, to be petrified timber details) are typical of the Aksumite style.

The largest stela, a single 33m stone, lies on the ground, snapped into three pieces (archaeologists think it collapsed on erection); the next largest, evocatively called the 'stolen one', was removed by the Italians in 1937 and now stands in Rome. This is Ethiopia's equivalent of the Parthenon Marbles, rousing as much passion, and though the principle of returning the stelae has been established, the logistics have not. It is not known how the Aksumites erected the stones, and it still defeats contemporary technology, unable to match the combined force of elephants, slaves and ancient wisdom. Stone was sourced from a local quarry where it is still possible to scramble around and observe a handful of small stelae, partially carved, but not quite freed from the mass of the rock.

Aksum is also the birthplace of the Ethiopian Church, the site of the first Christian church in Africa, and reputedly the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. Christianity arrived in the fourth century AD, and quickly took hold. Ethiopia was one of the first countries to adopt Christianity as its state religion, and up until the 1974 socialist revolution (when Mengistu overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie), the church was the major cultural and social force, as well as the largest landowner. Christianity still prevails (Ethiopia is now 45 per cent Christian and 35 per cent Muslim), and is deeply embedded within the national psyche. This is explained in the fourteenth-century Kebra Negrast, the national epic. Part history and part religious text, it sets out (or legitimizes) the absolute and divine power of the Solomonic dynasty, from which Emperor Haile Selassie was descended.

The churches of Lalibela

After the decline of Aksum, political power moved south to a new capital, Roha, renamed Lalibela after the King who transformed it in the thirteenth century into the 'New Jerusalem'. Best known for its rock churches, Lalibela is an important pilgrimage town. Although rock churches are common in this part of Ethiopia, those in Lalibela are unusual in that they are grouped together in complexes. The churches are a form of subtracted architecture, not constructed, but cut down into the volcanic rock (think of a pastry cutter), then the rock removed around and inside. Effectively, the rock is left exposed in its geological location, but cut free from its surround.

Despite their combined size they are not immediately visible; you can walk through the town, looking at the red stone walls, hut not actually notice them. All 11 are still working churches, supporting numerous deacons, priests, monks and nuns, as well as lay congregations. They were planned with obvious skill and knowledge -- levels, trenches, tunnels and wells were constructed with a combination of complex three-dimensional awareness and practical considerations such as managing water run. None has been accurately surveyed, but much would be learnt by seeing how they interconnect. All are in need of restoration--the local Tufa stone is relatively soft and is cracking in places--and they are currently protected by UNESCO-funded scaffolding and temporary roofs. External decoration tends to be concentrated on the windows and is usually Aksumite in style, although this is sometimes interspersed with Islamic style ogee curves. Interiors are relatively plain, with decoration confined to the square column heads.

Despite these similarities, the three groups have distinctly different plans, and each church has its own identity. Not all the churches are monolithic (or free-standing); some are partially connected to the surrounding rock either at the roof or at the side, so resembling caves. It is claimed that all were built over a period of 23 years--this seems unlikely, but legend has it that their construction was 'helped by angels'.

The first, or northern, group is relatively easy to apprehend, as the spaces hewn out between the churches are relatively large and they connect in an orthogonal, almost Classical way. Of the five churches in this group, the largest is Bet Medhane Alem, a vast basilica 33 x 23m in plan, with 72 free-standing columns, an astonishing feat of carving. Its cavernous, gloomy interior is penetrated by thin shafts of light that seep in from small high level windows and though it is an ungainly space, it is still quite awe-inspiring. Bet Maryam, also in the northern group, is much smaller, and, unusually for these types of rock churches, exhibits richly carved and painted interiors. Decoration is a mixture of Islamic geometric patterns fused with more typical Coptic portraits and Aksumite cushion capitals.

The second, or eastern, group, is more disorientating. Trenches and tunnels curve, dip and twist round, so there is never one point at which the complex can be experienced as a whole. Since the base rock was not as flat as the other groups, creating more of a challenge for the builders. Only one church, Bet Emanuel, is fully monolithic; it has crisp horizontal banding and window details in typically Aksumite style. This unusually high level of external decoration suggests that it was for royal use. Other churches in the group are semi-monoliths (i.e. partly attached to the rock) and so more asymmetric, or organic, in plan. The tiny, hypogeous Bet Abba Libanos (connected at its roof) still seems to be growing as it oozes out of the rock. This group is more intimate; the churches are smaller and there is more of a sense of contrast and spatial delight.

Bet Giyorgis, the last church to be built is, in some ways, the most impressive. Set on its own, unlike the others, it is a simple cruciform plan lying within a deep pit. Approached from above, the flat roof is carved with concentric crosses - an aesthetic device, but also a practical method of channelling water, which is expelled by Corbusian-like gargoyles on the facades. Skimming the roof, the sun casts the wall planes into deep shadow. Although it is tempting to get close to the edge the terrain is daunting--a 12m drop deters clumsy, vertiginous or litigious tourists. Access is by a shallow trench that gradually cuts down deep through the rock, turning 180 degrees into a dark tunnel, then through a small door into the bright church pit. It is an intense experience--the orchestrated contrasts of space, light and orientation help you to prepare for a different, sacred world.

Orthodox ritual and built form

Churches evolved to suit the Ethiopian Orthodox rituals, and traditionally, except for the rock and the original ancient Aksumite types, were generally circular. Their planning and arrangement is intimately bound up with the Ark of the Covenant, reputedly brought to Ethiopia by Menelik, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, who stole it from Jerusalem. It rests, allegedly, in the St Mary of Zion church complex in Aksum, where it is guarded by specially chosen monks. The Ark holds the Word of God, the Ten Commandments, written on tablets of stone; every Ethiopian church has a copy of these tablets, called tabot. Churches are divided into three concentric sections, the outer k'ane mahlet, central keddest, and the inner maqdas. Tabot are kept in the maqd as, which is only accessible to the high priest. The main act of worship and communion takes place in the keddest; worshippers face onto the maqdas, which are painted with biblical scenes. Colours are rich and bright, yellow, red, olive and blue, and appli ed directly onto a fibrous paper bonded to the wall. In a country with only 25 per cent literacy, these narrative paintings have the same function as medieval cathedral stone carvings and stained glass windows. Paintings are formally naive, almost awkward, yet extremely charismatic. Some of the figures are easy to recognize--St George and his dragon, for instance, as well as more specifically Ethiopian figures such as St Tecla, usually represented with one leg and a crutch. (He prayed for seven years standing on one leg only stopping when his leg fell off.)

One of the best examples of the traditional circular form is Ura Kidane Meret, on the Zege Peninsula, near Bahar Dar, Lake Tana. Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile, is home to many small monastic communities. Although built in the late I 800s, Ura Kidane Meret is representative of the traditional Ethiopian form. It has been rebuilt and restored, and the paintings touched up, although here (as in Japan), conservation is primarily concerned with technique, idea or form, as opposed to preserving the original physical fabric. Different elements are constructed from different crafts; the base is stone, the great monolithic central core, the maqdas, is made out of dung, a timber structure supports the roof, and the outer enclosure is woven from bamboo--an ideal Semper hut. The bamboo is loosely woven round horizontal members, then tied with a simple cowhide cross-stitch. The atmosphere in the outer k'ane mahlet is extrordinary, as light and air percolate through the bamboo--as with all the churches, low technology is combined with a highly developed aesthetic sense.

The requirements of Orthodox ritual have also been adapted to rectangular forms, as at Debre Berhan Selassie, a small church in Gonder. Gonder is on the north side of Lake Tana, an overnight ferry journey away from Bahar Dar; it was the capital in the seventeenth century, and the extensive (ruined) palace compound still survives. A circular church was consecrated on the site in 1694, but the present church was built in 1818, possibly around the original inner maqdas. The rectangular plan is unusual for this area, and could either reflect the importance of the church (in the new capital) or the Jesuit influence (for a short time the Portuguese had strong links with the monarchy). The walls of the central rectangular communion room, the keddest, are completely painted. Unlike a circular church where the paintings surround the maqdas, here the paintings surround you.

They follow a typical biblical narrative, although occasionally with more visceral relish (in one part a Bosch-like devil devours a man). But it is the celestial ceiling that distinguishes this church; between the joists are the faces of about 80 angels. They stare down as if watching and protecting worshippers, each with its own character and individual gaze. In this tiny church, which is so unassuming on the outside, you experience a profound sense of the numinous, helped on your way by an infinity of angels. These few specialist, Christian examples can hardly be said to be representative of either Ethiopian culture or the built environment--Ethiopia is, after all, a vast and complex country, with many different kinds of landscape, architecture and people. But what is strikingly consistent is the continuity of craft-based construction and the skill with which external ideas have been adopted and developed to work in harmony with individual customs and beliefs. As the country slowly attempts to modernize and new forms of architecture emerge, it must be hoped that such important aspects of Ethiopian tradition will not be lost. SARAH JACKSON

Bibliography and further reading

Ethiopia, Christian Africa, Ewald Hein and Brigitte Kleidt, Melina-verlag, 1999.

Ethiopia, The Unknown Land, StuartMunro-Hay, I B Tauris, 2002.

Ancient Ethiopia, David Phillipson, British Museum Press, 1998.

All photographs and sketch plans courtesy of the author
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Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:6ETHI
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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