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Medieval Houses of God, or Ancient Fortresses? Volume 57 Number 6, November/December 2004
by David Keys

[image] A Cambridge archaeologist has redated the church of the archangel Gabriel, previously believed to have been carved from the rock at Lalibela, Ethiopia, around A.D. 1200, to between A.D. 600 and 800. The church may originally have been built as a fortress. (Courtesy Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, Cambridge) [LARGER IMAGE]

Investigations in Lalibela, Ethiopia, are revealing that Africa's most important historical Christian site is much older than previously thought. Up until now, scholars have regarded the spectacular complex of 11 rock-cut churches as dating from around A.D. 1200, but new survey work carried out by a British archaeologist suggests that three of the churches may have originally been "built" half a millennium earlier as fortifications or other structures in the waning days of the Axumite Empire.

"The discovery will completely change the way historians perceive the origins of Africa's most famous indigenous Christian site," says David Phillipson, professor of African archaeology at Cambridge University. His research, to be fully published next year, suggests that two of the churches, those of Merkurios (a local Ethiopian saint) and the archangel Gabriel, were initially carved out of the rock as some sort of elite palace or fortress complex. A third structure created in that same early period later became the church of Danagel (the Virgin Martyrs). The Merkurios and Gabriel structures were built in highly defensible positions and may well have been the core of a fortified complex created during the politically unstable period that saw the disintegration of the Axumite Empire in the mid-seventh century A.D. At its peak in the third to sixth centuries A.D., that empire controlled much of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, and at times Yemen and even part of the Nile Valley.

Phillipson bases his new chronology of Lalibela on the monuments' architectural styles, their complex structural interrelationships, and comparisons with other monuments in Ethiopia. He believes that at least four of the site's 11 churches were constructed specifically as places of worship in the tenth or eleventh century, with a further three or four built by the mid-thirteenth century. According to Phillipson, it now seems that that late period was simply the time when the complex attained its greatest religious importance, and not when it was begun.

This new research also demonstrates a substantial continuity between the Axumite civilization, which adopted Christianity in the fourth century, and that of medieval Ethiopia. In fact, a number of architectural features found in Axumite churches were employed in the design of Lalibela's tenth- and eleventh-century rock-cut churches.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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