Washa-Mikael: Significant Heritage Site in Danger

February 25, 2010

High in the rolling hills of Yekka, overlooking the advancing reinforced-concrete tide of Addis Ababa, lays the ancient ruins of a significant semi-monolithic structure called Washa-Mikael (translation, Mikael’s Cave). Conceptually and stylistically akin to the widely celebrated 12th century rock hewn churches of Lalibela, Washa-Mikael’s format also invites interesting comparisons to early Coptic basilicas, but perhaps the utmost significance to be found in these remains is that they landmark the frontier of early Christianity’s southward expansion into Africa.

Work on Washa-Mikael was abruptly abandoned in the later stages of construction, but had this structure been brought to completion it would rank no less than second in size among Ethiopian rock churches, with the western façade measuring 26’ in height and 62’ in width (only Madhane Alam is larger). The lengths of the north and south walls are currently not verifiable because they are buried beneath so much silt that only the very top of the south doorframe remains visible, and as there is no indication of plan to excavate the eastern wall away from the gently sloping mound with which the structure remains integral, it is therefore semi-monolithic, rather than monolithic. Consequently the surrounding trench forms a U, with a loosely rectangular shaped courtyard to the west of the frontal façade measuring 80’ in length from north to south, and a width varying up to 40’. The side trenches (along the north and south walls) are channels of lesser widths, which slant from ground level down into the courtyard at such angles as to suggest steps beneath.

Obscurity and legend surround several key issues with regards to the history this long abandoned place of worship, namely, the structure’s date, why it was left unfinished, and how it came into ruin. Church tradition holds that King Atsbaha, known as Shaizana before Christian conversion, commissioned Washa-Mikael in 380A.D. This ruler is understood to have administered to the provincial southern expanse of the Axumite Empire from a palace in nearby Mount Yerar, while his brother King Abraha, known before conversion as Ezana, concurrently ruled over the northern realm from Axum. A much later date is assigned however by the late scholar of Ethiopian Orthodox history A.F. Matthew who, in a seminal report titled the Monolithic Church of Yekka, published by the Journal of Ethiopian Studies, reasons that Washa-Mikael was built sometime after twelfth century Lalibela and before 1531A.D., when Shoa’s Amhara populations were overrun by Emir Ahmed Gragn’s army – this, he points out, was followed by demographic shifts and conditions, the aftermath of which would have made such church building unfeasible for some time.

Washa-Mikael’s advanced state of ruin is commonly said to have been the result of aerial bombardment during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, but these claims are also open to some doubt because a number of reports published well before the war document widespread preexisting damage, including Rochet d’Hericourt’s 1846 publication, Second Voyage au Royaume de Choa, which describes fallen roof and bays in detail. Other speculation is that the church fell victim to the afore mentioned holy war led by Gragn, and indeed if this were the case it might fittingly explain the construction’s abrupt abandonment and neatly fix the building’s date to that era, but here again evidence appears sketchy. The more plausible cause of Washa-Mikael’s destruction seems instead to have been nothing more than human error during the construction phase. Lingering cross-sections of roof reveal fatal miscalculations of the rock’s thickness – clear testimony to flawed structural engineering, possibly exploited further by inherent faults in the flood basalt from which the structure was hewn. In this scenario it seems that there may have been nothing much left for Gragn or the Fascists to destroy.

Today it is ironic that although Washa-Mikael lies in proximity to Addis Ababa it remains largely unvisited by the capitol’s 3.4 Million local residents or by the city’s hundreds of thousands of annual foreign visitors. Thanks in part to this nearness there is much potential for cultural tourism, which if correctly developed, would assure site conservation and enhance appreciation of heritage and knowledge. And it is unfortunate that rather than preserving and utilising this site it has been left to great neglect instead. Roots from a host of flora currently attack and dislodge large portions of what remains of roof and walls, and the facade faces complete imminent collapse unless swift intervention is taken. After this urgency has been addressed, the next priority would be to unblock the drainage system, which also serves as a pedestrian tunnel. Not only has chronic flooding due to this blockage exacerbated structural problems, but it has also left hundreds of years of accumulated sediment, over a meter high in some areas, leaving one to wonder what lies beneath.

Washa-Mikael’s regrettable condition makes contention for recognition a challenge within a country where so many other ancient rock churches exist still intact – namely the eleven stunning examples of Lalibela, which have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978 – or the smaller, less impressive rock church Adadi Mariam, which is listed but not yet inscribed. It is hoped by the author of this report that this underestimation of Washa-Mikael will finally cease. Poor conditions not withstanding, the historical magnitude of this site alone warrants acknowledgment as a monument of utmost significance, and merits that it be placed on Ethiopia’s State Tentative List of Inventory as a first step towards eligibility for benefits of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in Danger status.

-Bruce Strachan, Addis Ababa, February 2010

One Response to “Washa-Mikael: Significant Heritage Site in Danger”

  1. Why isn’t the Archdiocese doing anything to save this church?

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