Theses Doctoral

“Bastions of the Cross”: Medieval Rock-Cut Cruciform Churches of Tigray, Ethiopia

Muehlbauer, Mikael

The rock-hewn churches of Tigray, Ethiopia, despite numbering in the hundreds, have not been the subjects of proper academic study. The few scholars who have worked on the architecture of Medieval Ethiopia have overwhelmingly chosen to focus on the Lalibela complex from the 13th century or later while the earlier churches of the northern Tigray province have only been briefly noted in larger surveys. To date, no scholar has undertaken a formal study of individual churches in this region, despite their importance for the study of the Medieval world. My dissertation, limited to those Tigrayan churches that are not basilicas, considers the three cross-shaped churches of Abreha wa-Atsbeha, Wuqro Cherqos and Mika’el Amba as architectural palimpsests, an index of the vibrant cultural exchanges that occured between Ethiopia, the Islamic world and India in the early Middle Ages.

I locate these churches in the mid-11th century, and in the process reconstruct a system of patronage from an Ethiopian kingdom or chieftaincy, based in eastern Tigray, which was engaged in close contact with Fatimid Egypt. I illustrate that through this innovative building program, early Medieval Ethiopia was placing itself in dialogue with its own Late Antique past, the ecumenism of the East Roman Empire and most importantly their contemporary benefactor and ally: Fatimid Egypt. The churches, in drawing their inspiration from prestigious architecture in Late Antiquity, effectively reinvented aisled cruciform churches through a Medieval Ethiopian lens. Moreover, I illustrate how the churches were decorated with an ornamental program inspired by precious cloths, imported from India, which were made newly available via Fatimid mercantile channels. In this way, Tigrayan cruciform churches may be understood as an experimental form of prestige architecture from early Medieval Ethiopia.

This dissertation, which I label a “comparative study”, is organized in the manner of a monograph and provides a holistic view of the three monuments. The first chapter critically reviews academic literature on Ethiopian art and architecture to date. The second chapter provides an overview of the salient architectural features of the churches, informed by my own mensuration and documentation, along with a brief discussion of related churches. What follows is an investigation of the relative chronology of the three churches, wherein I date their construction to multiple phases, anchored by an 11th-century groundbreaking. In the fourth chapter I examine their unique form and articulation, relating them to the architecture of Mediterranean Late Antiquity and Fatimid Egypt, along with their implications for the later history of Ethiopian architecture. The fifth chapter is an analysis of the churches’ decorative schemas as drawn from imported textiles and their socio-liturgical implications. The penultimate chapter investigates the later social history of the monuments, including both their use in both imperial Ethiopian and Italian propagandistic intrigues. The dissertation concludes with an absolute chronology of churches in Tigray.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Murray, Stephen D.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 28, 2020