SHOA’S FORGOTTEN ROCK TREASURES
By Bruce Strachan
On June 30th 2010, it was my pleasure to present a discussion in Ras Makonnen Hall titled Shoa’s Forgotten Rock Treasures – this at the invitation of the Friends of the Institute for Ethiopian Studies.
Through this presentation I hoped to cast new light on medieval Shoa, a fascinating period of capitol relocation, expansion and development that came to an end when King Lebna Dengel (1507-1540) found his empire overrun by the Ottoman backed troops of a young and charismatic imam from Zeila named Ahmad bin Ibrahim al-Gazi (1506-1543).
During this faith-based conquest, known as the Abyssinian-Adal War (1528-1543), Shoa was caught early in the eye of the storm. Indeed, so widespread was the destruction of Shoa’s fine palaces, churches and monasteries that little legacy remains. So extensive moreover was the accompanying loss of life and civic disruption that Shoa’s former eminence was largely forgotten by succeeding generations. It’s not surprising then that, while knowledge of the Zagwe and Gondarian eras is relatively complete, awareness of the history of medieval Shoa, which falls sequentially in-between, is lacking by comparison.
Within the scheme of Abyssinian chronology Shoa is a relative latecomer, emerging during early stages of the Restored Salomonic Dynasty (1270-1974) founded by King Yekuno Amlak (1270-1285). Imperial relocation from Wello to Shoa during this time continued a southward trend, begun several centuries earlier with the wane of Christian Axum – a decline thought to have come about, at least partially, as a result of exclusionary trade practices introduced with the arrival of Islam. Moreover, supplies of some of Abyssinia’s key export commodities, namely products derived from wild animals, such as elephant ivory, rhino horn and leopard pelts, may have became prone to depletion over time from within effectual range of Red Sea ports – this as demand from eastern markets, esp. Arabian, Persian and South Asian, increased.
Shirazi traders, who established port city-states along East Africa’s Indian Ocean coast, and whose decedents would contribute to the hybrid Swahili culture that followed, then met the bulk of these demands. In order to participate competitively Abyssinian merchants were compelled to establish new southerly posts where essential commodities could be more readily accessed, and where, by means of bypassing the Red Sea, they could more directly and cost-effectively enter the Indian Ocean network of trade, via the Gulf of Aden.
Weakening revenues from Red Sea trade likely also convinced Abyssinia’s leaders to reconsider the less than optimal agricultural potentials of the north. More dependable rains and richer soils of the southern highlands offered opportune alternatives, and in due course Shoa, with its exceptionally fertile land, abundance of natural recourses, and Gulf of Aden access, emerged most strategically placed.
Integral to the subsequent extension of northern culture and language, was the introduction of Oriental Orthodox Christianity with its distinctive architecture rooted in Axumite tradition. Saint Tekle Haymanot (1215-1313), born in Shoa (Selale) of Tigrayan lineage, played a particularly important role in this evangelization, during which outstanding religious and imperial sites – too numerous to catalogue in this limited report, were conceived. Notable is the monastery of Debre Libanos, the Debre Mitmaq Monastery in Tegulat, the Zuquala Monastery, Managesha Hill Church and Coronation Complex, the Capital City of Barara, church and patriarchal residence, the Ginbi Church, the Semi-monolithic Church of Yeka, also called Washa-Mikael, the Adadi-Mariam Monolithic Church, The Abbo-Nebero complex, the Ejersa Church, the Enselale Church, the Kistana Cave-Basilica, as well as royal sites in Entoto and Badeqe.
Ascribing one definitive medieval Shoan architectural style is not easy given that so little exemplar evidence has survived. Moreover, from a survey of remaining samples, a dynamic plurality is beheld, likely indicating much about the order and times in which these creations were conceived.
One of the earliest and finest examples of Shoan architecture is the Semi-monolithic Church of Yeka, known also as Washa-Mikael which, like hypogean architecture found in Wollo and Tigray, has a basilical floor plan. Correspondingly the Yeka example also possesses nuances of Aksumite style which, as in the renowned tradition of Lalibela, expresses revivalist aesthetic sentiment.
With an astonishing seven naves, and a front wall (west) measuring nearly 20 meters in width by eight meters in height, the Yeka church is exceptional for its grandeur. According to David Phillipson, only Lalibela’s Madhane Alam Church is larger. Certifying such a designation is problematic however, as the Yeka Church collapsed during mid-construction due to defects in the volcanic rock from which it was hewn, and was consequently abandoned during its present unfinished state. We may of course factor in this abandonment when enquiring why this particular church escaped devastation during the Abyssinian-Adel war. Plainly Yeka was an unworthy target.
The Yeka church did not, on the other hand, go unnoticed by Menilek II who resettled the region some three hundred and fifty years later, and for whom Shoa was a land of manifest destiny. Menelik took active interest in rehabilitating the Yeka site by adding the built up stone structure nearby, of which only the foundation and steps remain. Perhaps more fascinating however is that earlier ruminants, contemporaneous to the earlier era, appear beneath and around Menelik’s structure. The semi-monolithic Church in Yeka appears therefore to have been but one of several components within a larger complex.
Although incomplete, the grand ambition expressed within the proportions of the Yeka project suggests that its undertaking was one of considerable cost. It is likewise significant to find revivalist elements of Aksumite architecture this far south, where no comparable examples are known.
Some forty kilometres south of Yeka, the Adadi-Mariam church qualifies as the most southerly example of monolithic architecture. However, with its centrally placed Makdas, this building appears to follow the Yeka example chronologically. There are quality and size distinctions also, between Adadi-Mariam and the Yeka Church, which in the final analysis accord greater significance to Yeka.
About 15 k east of Adadi-Mariam, along the north bank of the Awash, a most astonishing complex of six architecturally enhanced grottoes, known as Abba-Nebero, appears. Upon inspection of this assemblage, Richard Pankhurst wondered if it might not have been the ‘Monastère de Notre Dame,’ from the ‘palace of the Kingdom of Gorage,’ as described by Alveraz.
A large squared object aligned on a precise north-south axis – probably a manbara tabot, sits in the middle of a prominent elevated chamber, hewn from the living rock. The ecclesiastical function of the site is therefore without question. Otherwise, architectural details found throughout the various chambers are eclectic, with informal additions such as wall recesses, likely added during the centuries of abandonment.
Of particular interest is a distinctive adornment above one of the primary entrances, consisting of two hollowed-out orbs carved into the wall above the door’s corners. These may have served as oil lamps. The space between is accentuated by a recessed horizontal element, instantly recognisable as a configuration for matching the arrangement found above the west door of the before mentioned semi-monolithic church in Yeka. Notably the horizontal element in the Abba-Nebero example is arched, whereas the Yeka version is straight. Otherwise the designs are identical and demonstrate a significant, uniquely Shoan correspondence.
The 2,989 meter high monastery on Mount Zuquala, founded by St. Gebre Manfas, was destroyed and looted at the outset of the Abyssinian-Adel war. What remains of the original structure has been duly sealed under a bed of cement, constituting the foundations of the Kidane Mihret Church, which was constructed during Emperor Haile Selassie’s time. Notably the far-reaching celebrity of Mt. Zuquala is highlighted through its appearance in various medieval documents such as Fra Mauro’s 15th century Mappamundi.
Imam Ahmad’s forces likewise succeeded in destroying the Managesha Hill Church and Coronation Complex, commissioned by Zera Yakob, as did they the imperial city of Barara, the whereabouts of which remains one of Africa’s most thought-provoking enigmas. Repeated references to Barara made by various medieval sources such as Alessandro Zorzi, and Fra Mauro capture the researcher’s imagination, but the most poignant of citations are surely those of imam Ahmad’s war-chronicler, a Yemeni named Arab Faqih who, after witnessing Barara’s pillage, faithfully recorded the occurrence in Volume One of his, Futuh al-Habasa (Conquest of Ethiopia).
Fortified ruins on the slopes of Mount Yerar might, after scientific investigation, prove to be remains of the city in question here, and indeed the impressive remnants found at this locale do align with certain clues from previously cited documents. A 100% positive identification has yet to be made however.
Imam Ahmad’s army also destroyed the Ginbi-Tewodros Church atop Mount Yerar. Design elements found in the architecture of this basilica, and likewise in Ejersa and Enselale, demonstrate a sudden new elegance and inventiveness, probably dating to the late 15th or early 16th century. Stylistic incorporations, such as nautical style doorframes and window trim, as well as panels with intricately carved cruciform motifs, are not wholly unlike some dressed stone elements found in the Gondarian architecture, which followed. A promising untilled area of comparative research awaits exploration here.
Of Shoa’s numerous medieval sites none is more charming than the Kistina Cave Basilica, found in relative proximity to Adadi Mariam. This tiny enhanced cave is one of very few examples of medieval Shoan architecture to have survived largely intact – due, no doubt, to it’s secretive location and disguised entrance.
The Washa of Dawit II and surrounding Entoto Royal Site to the west of Yeka, are also landmarks of significance. Here, on what Emperor Menelik II proclaimed to have been royal installations, he erected his palace and the Saint Raguel Church. Such claim of cultural inheritance would have infused the emperor’s 19th century expansionist mandate. This location is furthermore significant because it commands perhaps the most advantageous vantage point of Shoa.
The whereabouts of the city of Badeqe is yet one more Shoan mystery waiting to be deciphered. Arab Fiqah informs us in his Futuh al-Habasa, that the church of Badeqe was commissioned, ‘in a most beautiful fashion,’ by King Na’od’s wife Sabla Wangel, and with this piece of information we can reliably fix the church of Badeqe to the early 16th century.
Portuguese emissaries had by this time, already appeared on Shoan soil offering skills, while promoting their Roman Catholic version of Christianity. This diplomatic mission, led by Pero da Covilha, proposed a strategic alliance based largely on the two nation’s commonality of faith, ostensibly designed to stem the Muslim threat. Not seeing sufficient benefit in such a partnership, the young Emperor Lebna Dengel declined.
Formal alliance or not, Abyssinia’s association with the Portuguese must have been provocative to Muslims, who viewed Portugal’s ultimate interest to forcibly broaden its share of Indian Ocean/Red Sea trade. Hostilities between the two had escalated in 1528 with Portugal’s second bombardment of Ziela – imam Ahmad’s hometown.
Badeqe meanwhile was a sitting target, and in the aftermath of the decisive Muslim victory in the Battle of Sembera Kore (1529), Arab Fiqah fatefully recorded the following:
- The imam [Amhad] said to his companions, ‘Now that God has given us the victory over them, and has humiliated them [in the Battle of Sembera Kore], let us march on Badeqe the place where the king’s residences are, to take him and to demolish it. Let us occupy Abyssinia, conquering the country and weakening them.’
Emperor Lebna Dengel lived to fight another day, but imam Ahmad’s momentum forced him to flee north – and so another page in Ethiopian history turned.
Most of the sites discussed in this report are at urgent risk of further damage due to natural erosion and or human interference, particularly from farming and rock quarrying. It is hoped however that by raising public awareness conservation measures may be advanced. How to proceed raises questions without simple answers though, especially for a developing nation with other pressing priorities, and endowed with such abundance of important sites in need. I am nevertheless convinced that application for UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites In Danger List, on behalf of these monuments, must be put forth as a successful lobby would gain much needed financial support.
Much more research and analysis lies ahead before we start to attain the realism and clarity desired in a meaningful portrait of medieval Shoa. But we should take immense satisfaction in that our subject is unquestionably worthy. We are furthermore encouraged that so many distinguished members of the community attended the Shoa’s Forgotten Rock Treasures presentation. This turnout is a positive indicator of public wakefulness. We furthermore heartily appreciate the pledge made on that occasion by the Honourable Minister of Culture Mohamed Derir with regards to the Yeka church, for which we have already begun to see implementation.
In closing let me state that this survey could not have been carried out were it not for the input and support of people unto whom special recognition is owed – namely, Dr. Jacinta Muteshi, Ato Jalata Kagela, Dr. Berhanu G Hailemariam, Dr. Shiferaw Bekele and Dr. Richard Pankhurst.
Bruce Strachan is a Nairobi based artist and writer who resided in Ethiopia between 2001 and 2004 – and then again in 2010-11. He writes about medieval Shoa for various publications including Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, The Nation, and Selamta. Recently he co-authored a report titled The Semi-monolithic Church of Yeka with Richard Pankhurst, for Annales d’Ethiopie (forthcoming).
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The Ministry of Culture began efforts last week to preserve the semi-monolithic church in Yeka, called Washa-Mikael – this according to a very pleased and excited sounding Ato Amiro Wubante. According to Amiro, a guide at the site, work has begun to clear away flora overgrowth and dig a trench to allow rain drainage and avoid flooding.
Bruce Strachan - Nairobi/January 22nd, 2011
November 12, 2010
By Bruce Strachan
3, Hdare 2003
Worsening of structural integrity due to continued root invasion has once again been monitored at the semi-monolithic church in Yeka. Why this resolvable problem is permitted to continue ravaging a monument of such significance vexes many, but today what is particularly disturbing is that another, new sort of unnatural damage is now beginning to appear – human vandalism.
Two cavities, one 3.5cm and the other 2.75cm in diameter, have been bored into the convex spherical detail, just above the upper-right corner of the west door, marring the structure’s focal design element. Unmistakably man-made, this new vandalism was first seen on November 3rd (24 Tekemt 03), and was not present during a previous photo documentation of the site three months ago.
Graffiti has long been a nuisance for this site popularly known as Washa-Mikael. In addition to these written inscriptions, hermits and squatters have also added their own personal touches down through the ages. A crude ladder leading to a window was carved in the exterior of the south wall, as were small interior niches and basins. But unlike these vintage ‘home-improvements’, the new damage appears to be vandalism purely for vandalism’s sake.
Thanks to recent efforts to raise greater public awareness and generate a conservation mandate the Yeka church was listed as state inventory in 2010 – first step towards application for World Heritage Sites in Danger nomination. Recognition from UNESCO could bring critically needed financial support, not just to protect this particular site, but to a group of prominent Shoan sites in danger, believed to date back to the medieval era dynasty of Yekuno Amlak*.
Such a ‘Southern Historic Route‘ would have potential to generate important dividends from cultural tourism while at the same time safeguarding Ethiopia’s National Heritage.
*The Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo Church states that the Yeka church was built by Abreha and Atsbeha during the fourth century Dynasty of Menelik I.