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THE NEW ROCK-HEWN CHURCHES OF ETHIOPIA: CONTINUITY OR REVIVAL? [Abstract ID: 0210-01]
The panel, “The New Rock-Hewn Churches of Ethiopia: Continuity or Revival?” introduces a subject which has as yet not entered the published literature concerning Ethiopian studies. Recent research sponsored by the Arcadia Fund in the UK has identified three regions where master craftsmen, both lay and ecclesiastic, are currently hand-chiseling churches out of the rock: these are the areas around Dabra Berhan in Shoa, between Gashena and Nefas Meewcha in North Wollo, and between Hawzien and Abiy Addi in Tigray. Many of these churches, of which some twenty have so far been documented, are the inspiration of individual monks, priests or hermits; while others owe their existence to the choice of village councils whose members enter into contracts with experienced craftsmen. The latter are invariably self-taught in their handling of the rock. If given the choice between having a new church built or hewn from the rock, the rock-cut option invariably prevails because they last [centuries] longer, cost less to make and require next to no upkeep. Many of these churches are made in the proximity of older, disused or unfinished examples, or are enlargements of pre-existing ones (in which case the original monument is destroyed). Given the age-old association of rock-hewn architecture with places of Christian worship in Ethiopia, there is reason to inquire whether the present activity is a revival led principally by a handful of ecclesiastics motivated by religious fervor, or whether it represents the continuity of a long-established tradition usually thought to have come to an end half a millennium or more ago. While the churches of Lalibala stand as witnesses to the high quality of this ancient craft, there are many others situated across the Ethiopian landscape attributed to as far back as King Caleb which do not reflect the same standard of workmanship. It is possible that some of these monuments are not as old as we may have been led to believe, in which case a good argument could be made for continuity rather than a revival of the phenomenon.