Washa-Mikael – One Of Africa’s Most Meaningful Heritage Sites Is Endangered

February 1, 2010

Girma Jones interviews Bruce Strachan about Addis Ababa’s ‘Washa-Mikael,’ also known as, ‘The Monolithic Church of Yekka,’ which is currently being ravaged by flooding and flora overgrowth.

GIRMA JONES: Bruce, Can you please introduce the reader to Washa-Mikael?

BRUCE STRACHAN: High in the rolling hills of Yekka overlooking Addis Ababa lies a large unfinished semi-monolithic Axumite structure called Washa-Mikael. Conceptually and stylistically related to the magnificent 12th century rock hewn churches of Lalibela, Washa-Mikael also bears lineal resemblance to Coptic basilicas of 5th Century Egypt. It is undoubtedly the oldest structure of its sophistication and type this far south in Africa and more than likely landmarks the early frontier of ancient Christianity’s southward progression.

GIRMA: Who built it and when?

BRUCE: The most beguiling unanswered mystery about Washa-Mikael is its age, but because a comprehensive examination has not yet been carried out one is left to speculate. Ethiopian tradition holds that it was commissioned in 380A.D. by an Axumite king named Atsbaha (known as Shaizana before Christian conversion 332A.D.) and who is believed to have ruled over the southern portion of the empire while his brother Abraha (known as Ezana before conversion) concurrently governed the north from Axum. Scholars date Washa-Mikael later however – generally somewhere between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries.

GIRMA: How did it come to be abandoned?

BRUCE: Local oral tradition charges that Washa-Mikael was arial bombarded by Italian forces in the 1930’s during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War but this claim is inconclusive as no applicable material evidence is known. In addition there are a number of pre-war reports, which specifically document extensive preexisting damage. The prevailing academic view is that Washa-Mikael’s destruction was due to weaknesses occurring naturally within the particular basalt from which it was hewn, rendering it deficient as a building material. The fact that construction was abandoned at an unfinished stage lends support to this theory. An other speculation is that Washa-Mikael lay victim to the holy war led by Emir Ahmed Gragn, which swept across Shoa in the 1530’s. If this were the case it might also help explain the construction’s abrupt abandonment and fix the building’s date to that era.

GIRMA: Why is such an important landmark so scarcely known?

BRUCE: Even though Washa-Mikael is right under our noses in the outlining hills of Addis Ababa, it’s still somewhat remote – accessible only by four wheel drive vehicle or by foot. The structure is also in ruins and therefore not as picture perfect to tourists as many of Ethiopia’s completely intact rock churches such as the eleven spectacular examples in Lalibela – already a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

GIRMA: But is Washa-Mikael worthy of UNESCO’s World Heritage Site status?

BRUCE: Washa-Mikael’s immense historical and cultural signification qualifies it as having outstanding universal value thus meeting the basic criteria for acceptance. Ultimately however this is a judgement for UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee to decide. The first formal step is to get it inscribed on Ethiopia’s State Tentative List of inventory. The notable but less important Ethiopian rock church Adadi Mariam is already on this list and is now in UNESCO’s review phase.

GIRMA: What can we learn from the site?

BRUCE: There’s tremendous educational value in Washa-Mikael. Firstly, the high quality and grand scale of the structure can be very informative about the demographic of its time. Secondly, because construction seems to have been abandoned at an unfinished state (an estimated 30% unfinished) it offers an invaluable example of the type of building methods employed – methods such as competing crews working in conjunction but separately to foster increased productivity through incentives. Washa-Mikael’s construction also employed a top to bottom method of excavating the structure’s interior, in which the process of rock extraction begins at the ceiling level and works it’s way down to the floor. This method is clearly revealed through its unfinished state and interestingly this was precisely the same method applied in Jordan’s ancient rock architecture in Petra.

It’s also notable that Washa-Mikael’s basilica format is of a type similar to early Coptic churches in Egypt – atypical of Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, which tend to follow the Hebrew sanctuary format. Such a similarity is not surprising since the Coptic patriarch in Alexandria wielded supreme power over Ethiopia’s early Church. One notable apparent diversion from traditional format is that there seems to be no clearly assigned makdas, the centrally located chamber for housing the representative ark of the covenant known as the tabot, an essential component of all later Ethiopian Orthodox Churches. Again, this may have been because Washa-Mikael, in completion, intended to follow the basilica format, which called for an apse in the east rather than an innermost makdas.

One of Washa-Mikael’s most curious features is a tall vertical slab which stands on the north-western corner of the courtyard. This may have been used as a raised podium where cantors, known as debteras, to lead hymns, or it may have simply been sculpted by nature – only a thorough study of the site can say conclusively.

GIRMA: Is there potential for tourism?

BRUCE: Yes indeed. Cultural tourism offers several positive effects, which includes assured site conservation and enhanced awareness of heritage, as well as added revenue for the community through demand for local services and human resources. Because the development of Washa-Mikael as a cultural heritage site would generate consequential increase in tourism it is paramount that thoughtful, farsighted and responsible planning be be conceived, implemented and monitored, prioritizing preservation needs and assuring that the local community receives a fair share of benefit distribution.

GIRMA: What is the biggest threat facing Washa-Mikael today?

BRUCE: Continued neglect. Invasive vines and roots are cracking and dislodging massive chunks of the remaining ceiling, arches and walls, which will collapse completely if something isn’t done immediately. Flooding due to a blocked drainage system has also contributed to damage and left hundreds of years of sediment, and not least of all Washa-Mikael also suffers from graffiti and vandalism.

GIRMA: What can be done?

BRUCE: This is an emergency which warrants immediate action. After gaining authorization the most urgent challenge is to remove all attacking vines and roots. This can be achieved on a minimum budget. The next priority is to unblock the pedestrian tunnel, which also serves as a drainage system, to end chronic flooding. After these emergency matters have been addressed a board, authorised by church and government authorities, should be composed from recognized Ethiopian government, religious, community, academic and cultural leaders to form and oversee a Washa-Mikael Preservation Trust. In short this trust will reach consensus on a course of action, aid the government in application for UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Danger status, and develop a permanent preservation, maintenance and restoration plan.

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This interview was conducted by Girma Jones at the Washa-Mikael site on January 12th, 2010.

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