The Church of St. George, cut into the bedrock at Lalibela
Last week I discussed the unique blend of Baroque and Abyssinian styles that created the Castles of Gondar, Ethiopia. I’ve also written on the splendid ancient civilization of Axum in the same country. But Ethiopia has a lot more to offer than that. The most famous historic sites, and certainly the most impressive, are the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.
In the late 12th century, much of what is now northern and central Ethiopia was under the rule of the Zagwe dynasty. Ethiopia had been Christian since 330 AD and had developed its own liturgy, practices, and traditions. Like with all other Christian lands, many Ethiopians dreamed of going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. For some time this was possible, although it involved a long trek overland to catch a boat on the Red Sea, then another trek across the desert to get to the holy cities. But as the Crusades turned the Holy Land into a battleground, it turned a difficult journey into an impossible one. The rulers of the Zagwe dynasty came up with a unique solution.
The building in this photo looks a bit strange. It appears European but also has a style uniquely its own. One might be excused for thinking that this is European Colonial architecture in some far-off colony, but in fact it was built by one of Ethiopia’s most anti-colonial emperors.
The Emperor Fasiladas reigned from 1632 to 1667 and was a strong ruler right from the start. Like the Merovingian kings and the Moroccan sultans, Fasiladas had to contend with powerful noble families who had close connections to their local tribes and clans. Ethiopian emperors would spend much of their time in the saddle, going on “visits” to their provinces with large armies in tow.
In a recent post on the ancient and medieval civilizations of Somalia, we looked at the importance of the Horn of Africa in international trade. The Somalis acted as middlemen, supplying the Eastern Mediterranean, India, and China with goods from the African interior. One of the major ancient civilizations in east Africa that was producing exports was the Empire of Axum.
Axum is a little-known civilization. It didn’t leave much in the way of writing and its sites have not been extensively excavated. Even its capital city has been little explored. We do know that it was founded in the fourth century BC and became a major power by about 100 AD. It came to control most of what is now Ethiopia and Eritrea, and then hopped over the Red Sea in the third century to take over parts of what is now Yemen and Saudi Arabia. For a time, it controlled trade through the Red Sea and acted as a link between the Roman Empire and India. Axumite coins have been found as far away as China. Greek writers noted Axum as one of the world’s great civilizations.