Churches Built in the Caves of Lasta (Wällo Province, Ethiopia): A Chronology

Article English OPEN
Gervers, Michael (2014)
  • Publisher: Universität Hamburg, Hiob Ludolf Centre for Ethiopian Studies
  • Journal: Aethiopica (issn: 2194-4024, eissn: 1430-1938)
  • Related identifiers: doi: 10.15460/aethiopica.17.1.857
  • Subject: Ethiopian Studies; Architecture | architecture; ecclesiastical architecture; caves; pastophoria; rock-hewn churches; Solomonic; Zagwe | ddc:720 | ddc:200 | ddc:960

The five churches of Yǝmrǝḥannä Krǝstos, Ǝmäkina Mädḫane ʿAläm, Ǝmäkina Lǝdätä Maryam, Walye Iyäsus and Žämmädu Maryam are all built in caves in the massif of Abunä Yosef, situated in the Lasta region of Wollo. Changes in their architectural forms suggest that they were constructed over a period of several hundred years in the order listed and as such represent a significant chronological model against which many of Ethiopia’s rock-hewn churches may be compared. Until the publication of this paper, it has been universally accepted that the church of Yǝmrǝḥannä Krǝstos was built in the second half of the 12th century under the sponsorship of an eponymous king. Aspects of the church’s architecture, namely the absence of a raised space reserved for the priesthood before the triumphal arch (the bema), of any sign of a chancel barrier around it, of western service rooms, of a vestibule and narthex, and of the presence of a reading platform (representative of the Coptic ambo), of a full-width open western bay (allowing for a ‘return aisle’), and of arches carrying the aisle ceilings, all point to a date of construction around the mid-13th century. In fact, the closest parallels to Yǝmrǝḥannä Krǝstos may be found in Lalibäla’s second group of monolithic churches, Amanuʾel and Libanos. Closely associated also is the church of Gännätä Maryam. A painting of the Maiestas Domini in the south-east side room (pastophorion) of the latter suggests that the room served as an extension of the sanctuary. By the end of the 13th century, as witnessed by Ǝmäkina Mädḫane ʿAläm and the other churches built in caves, the full-width sanctuary becomes a characteristic which endures throughout 14th- and 15th -century Ethiopian church architecture. Yǝmrǝḥannä Krǝstos and Gännätä Maryam stand on the cusp of a major liturgical change which coincides with the transfer of royal power from the Zagwe dynasty to their Solomonic successors, who sought legitimacy by following Coptic practices.