By Stuart Munro-Hay
Abreha and Atsbeha are supposed, according to the Book of Aksum (Conti Rossini 1910: 3), to have constructed the cathedral at Aksum on land which Christ miraculously dried up from a former lake for the purpose. There were, in fact, certainly two earlier Aksumite buildings there already, the remains of which were excavated by MM. de Contenson and Anfray, and the podium of the present cathedral rests on another Aksumite structure, possibly an earlier church (de Contenson 1959, 1963: Anfray 1965). One or both of these earlier buildings may have been associated with a pre-Christian temple if, as elsewhere, the custom was to establish the church on an already sanctified site, though the excavated remains seem rather show the usual type of `mansion’ style of structure for the buildings. The church of Abba Pantelewon, outside Aksum, for example, seems to have been built on a site already in use in pre-Christian times. There is said to be a stone staircase inside it, but this is inaccessible to all but the priests.
Illustration 56. View of the east end of the old cathedral of Maryam Tseyon at Aksum, showing the podium built on the ruins of an earlier, Aksumite, structure.
The cathedral of Aksum, `Our Lady Mary of Zion’, or Maryam Tseyon, was also known as Gabaza Aksum, gabaz referring to a church or holy place. Land charters, surviving only as later `copies’, detail lands purportedly given to the church by Abreha and Atsbeha, Gabra Masqal, and Anbessa Wedem (Huntingford 1965). An early account of the church’s magnificence is said to have been related to the prophet Muhammad during his last illness by two of his wives, Umm Habiba and Umm Salama, both of whom had been in exile in Ethiopia with their former husbands in the 620s. The description mentions that the walls were covered with paintings, and, if so, is the testimony to the early commencement of a type of decoration which later became standard for Ethiopian churches (Sergew Hable Sellassie 186, n. 30). The cathedral was destroyed or damaged several times, the last but one before the present structure is a large five-aisled edifice, which was eventually destroyed by the Muslim armies under Ahmad Gragn. Alvares’ description of the church and its environs, extremely valuable as it is the only surviving eye-witness description of the ancient church, is as follows (Beckingham and Huntingford 1961: 151)
View of the main entrance of the new cathedral of Maryam Tseyon at Aksum, which was built during Emperor Hile Selase
“a very noble church, the first there was in Ethiopia: it is named Mary of Syon. They say that it is so named because its altar stone came from Sion. In this country (as they say) they have the custom always to name the churches by the altar stone because on it is written the name of the patron saint. This stone which they have in this church, they say that the apostles sent it from Mount Sion. This church is very large; it has five aisles of good width and of great length, vaulted above, and all the vaults closed, the ceiling and sides all painted. Below, the body of the church is well worked with handsome cut stone; it has seven chapels, all with their backs to the east, and their altars well ornamented. It has a choir after our fashion, except that it is low, and they reach the vaulted roof with their heads; and the choir is also over the vault, and they do not use it. This church has a very large circuit, paved with flagstones like the lids of tombs. This consists of a very high wall, and it is not covered over like those of the other churches but is left open. This church has a large enclosure, and it is also surrounded with another larger enclosure, like the enclosing wall of a large town or city. Within this enclosure are handsome groups of one story buildings, and all spout out their water by strong figures of lions and dogs of stone [of different colors]. Inside this large enclosure, there are two mansions, one on the right hand and the other on the left, which belong to the two rectors of the church; and the other houses are of canons and monks.”
It is presumed that the church of Maryam Tseyon as Alvares saw it reflects the result of continual development from an original foundation in or after the fourth century, through a number of improvements and additions. A proposed restoration of the church has been attempted by Buxton and Matthews (1974), basing their ideas on Alvares’ not always very clear description. They also embody certain details of architecture from the Lalibela churches, which were constructed or decorated according to something of the same architectural tradition.
The Book of Aksum (Conti Rossini 1910) lists a number of churches, some of whose names were bestowed, following local tradition, on the palaces which the DAE found in 1906. The early churches of Ethiopia seem to have been apsidal basilicas, apparently following the plan customarily used in Syria (Anfray 1974: 763ff). This contrasts sharply to the round churches of the present day, which may well be based on a local African architectural tradition, but the province of Tigray is still largely characterized by churches of the rectangular plan.
In Aksum, two basilicas were found on Beta Giyorgis hill, and one was excavated (Ricci 1976; Ricci and Fattovich 1987). The structure, designated `Bieta Giyorgis Superiore’ from its position, showed two main building-periods. The lower structure was of typical Aksumite construction but showed a variation in the plan as it had side wings flanking the north and south walls near the east, or apsidal, end. A later structure was built on the original, without the usual Aksumite recessed plan, and consisting of a rectangular room whose roof was supported by four stone columns arranged in pairs, and with pilasters built in with the main walls on three sides (Ricci and Fattovich 1987: fig. e). In many places, tombs had been constructed under the paving, and the paving, door sills and the like sometimes included re-used stelae, probably brought from the stele-field found by Ricci on top of the Beta Giyorgis hill. In addition, some decorative stonework was found, including a block carved in relief with a Greek cross, and various fragments apparently from stepped column bases, from a column which was cruciform in section, and from water-spouts. A capital was also found, carved with volutes in relief. Illustration 57. The relatively modern rectangular church of Maryam Tehot at Edaga Hamus stands on the ruins of an Aksumite structure distinguished by the use of cut stones in the walling instead of the usual mud-bound rubble. A further basilica was excavated at Enda Cherqos (de Contenson 1961). Others are known at Matara (Anfray 1974: 756ff), and several at Adulis (Paribeni 1907; Anfray 1974: 750; Munro-Hay 1989i).
Further such churches have been found at Agula and Qwiha, and very likely the surviving structures at Tekondo and Qohayto include churches (Doresse 1957: 200-201). An early (sixth-century? — Doresse 1957: 231-2) church was also constructed inside the temple at Yeha. Doresse speculated as to whether the internal circular colonnade of one of the Adulis churches excavated by Paribeni (1907: fig. 50) might represent an early example of a tendency towards the circular plan. Paribeni himself thought that the circular pillared structure in the church was a later addition, perhaps the support for a wooden baldaquin over some now-removed object. It may be that during the centuries there were some changes in the church ritual which were felt to be better expressed by the round church plan, though, as the rectangular type also continued in use, it may rather be attributed to ease of construction, or perhaps to the move southward of the Christian Ethiopian kingdom, where it simply reflected the common house-type. Where rock-cut churches are concerned, this architectural consideration obviously did not apply; though in fact most rock-cut churches may be earlier in date than the period when round churches became common.
Panorama view of Deber Damo
Debre Damo is the name of a flat-topped mountain, or amba, and the 6th-century monastery in northern Ethiopia. The mountain is a steeply rising plateau of trapezoidal shape, about 1000 by 400 meter in dimension.
The most splendid surviving built the church is that at the monastery of Dabra Damo which may even go back to the sixth century, and there are a few other old built churches surviving. Of the vast number of rock-hewn churches in Tigray (Plant 1985), some may date to Aksumite times, and certainly many have Aksumite architectural features. Some of the Aksumite peculiarities of design and structure are also apparent at the rock-cut churches of Lalibela, carved and completed at an uncertain date, but usually attributed to Zagwé times, long after the end of Aksum (for exceptional pictures of some of these, see Gerster 1970).
The inside of st Zion Mary church inside
A feature of some Aksumite churches was the baptistery. What seems to have been a building including a baptistery or similar monument survives at Wuchate Golo, just west of Aksum (de Contenson 1961i). The Wuchate Golo structure consisted of a podium approached by steps and surrounded by corridors, on which the main feature was a circular cistern paved with a large rounded stone. Small stelae, benches, and basins lay around the main building, which was flanked by a lesser structure containing five rooms. The coins found at Wuchate Golo seem all to be of the sixth or even early seventh century, and pottery fragments with crosses were excavated, implying a late Aksumite date for this curious building. De Contenson suggested that it represents a Christian church of a special type (1961i: 6-7). Other baptisteries, with access to the water provided by two staircases, are known from Yeha (Doresse 1957: 232, and fig. opposite p. 240), Adulis (Paribeni 1907: fig. 50) and Matara. This latter was fed by an ingenious pipe-system formed by the bodies of pottery amphorae, fitted one within the other, passing through the baptistery wall to the outside (Anfray 1974: 766-8).
Abba Pentelewon (c. 470–522) was a Christian monk who is traditionally credited with founding Pentalewon Monastery located on the top of Mai Qoho Hill northwest of Axum in northern Ethiopia. Wikipedia
It is interesting to note that Kaleb’s inscription (Schneider 1974) says “I founded a maqdas in Himyar. . . . I built his GBZ and consecrated it by the power of the Lord”. Other sources claim that Kaleb built several churches in Himyar (Shahid 1979). The text may employ the word gabaz to refer back to the newly-founded church in Himyar, but this sentence, dealing with Kaleb’s last act recorded in the inscription, comes in the position usually reserved in earlier examples for the dedication of captives, thrones, statues or the inscription itself, and it might instead signify reconstruction work by Kaleb at Aksum’s own cathedral as a gesture of gratitude for his victorious campaign. Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity by Dr. Stuart Munro-Hay.
Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity
- 2-1. The Legends of Aksum
2-2. Aksum in Ancient Sources
2-3. The Rediscovery of Aksum in Modern Times
- 3-1. The Landscape
3-2. Origins and Expansion of the Kingdom
3-3. The Development of Aksum; an Interpretation
3-4. Cities, Towns, and Villages
3-5. The Inhabitants
3-6. Foreign Relations
- 4-1 The Pre-Aksumite Period
4-2 Early Aksum until the Reign of Gadarat
4-3 Gadarat to Endubis
4-4 Endubis to Ezana
4-5 Ezana after his Conversion, to Kaleb
4-6. Kaleb to the End of the Coinage
4-7. The Post-Aksumite Period
- 5-1. The Site
5-2. The Town Plan
5-3. Portuguese Records of Aksum
5-4. Aksumite Domestic Architecture
5-5. The Funerary Architecture
5-6. The Stelae
- 7-1. The King and the State
7-2. The Regalia
7-3. Dual Kingship
7-5. The Royal Titles
7-6. The Coronation
- 8-1. Population
8-2. Agriculture, Husbandry, and Animal Resources
8-3. Metal Resources
8-4. Trade, Imports and Exports
8-5. Local Industries
- 9-1. The Origins
9-2. Introduction and Spread of the Coinage
9-3. Internal Aspects of the Coinage
9-4. The Mottoes
9-5. The End of the Coinage
9-6. Modern Study of the Coinage
- 10-1. The Pre-Christian Period
10-2. The Conversion to Christianity
10-3. Abreha and Atsbeha
10-4. Ecclesiastical Development
- 11-1. The Inscriptional Record
11-2. The Military Structure
11-4. The Fleet
11-5. The Aksumite inscriptions
- 15-1. The Failure of Resources
15-2. The Climate
15-3. External and Internal Political Troubles
15-4. The Najashi Ashama ibn Abjar
15-5. The NatsaniDaniell