Church Buildings

The oldest surviving churches in Ethiopia, which probably date back to Late Aksumite times, preserve the original rectangular basilica style that was introduced from the eastern Mediterranean. This same style is also found in the famous rock-cut churches of Lalibala (see next section). Most church buildings in Ethiopia today are, however, circular or octagonal in shape, and as such are probably simply larger versions of the normal domestic architectural style of the highlands. These churches, usually built on slight elevations and surrounded by a grove of trees, traditionally have thatched roofs surmounted by an ostrich egg shell or an inverted pot and a cross. Churches also normally stand within a compound which contains other buildings, such as the treasury or store house, and the Beta Lahem, where the eucharistic wine and bread are prepared. The main church building is also generally surrounded by an ambulatory under the shade of the heavily overhanging eaves,

The most distinctive feature of Ethiopian church architecture, however, is the interior. This has a tripartite structure, which in the typical round church takes the form of three concentric rings with the usually square Sanctuary, Maqdas, in the centre. Here is located the Holy of Holies, Qaddusa (or Qaddasta) Qaddusan, the interior of which is shielded from public view by a curtain drawn across the doorway. Only the priests and deacons may enter the Holy of Holies. Within the Holy of Holies is housed the tabot, a representation of the Ark of the Covenant, the original of which Ethiopian tradition says is kept at the Cathedral of St Mary of Zion in Aksum. It is the presence of the tabot which consecrates an Ethiopian church. The tabot takes the form of a large tablet of wood carved with a cruciform design, the text of the Ten Commandments, and the dedication to the saint in whose name the church is consecrated. On feast days the tabot is brought out of the church, wrapped in rich brocades and carried on the heads of the priests. At other times the tabot sits on a stand, known as the Manbara Tabot, or 'Seat of the Tabot', within the Sanctuary. The next ring is known as the Qaddast, and is where communion is offered to the laity. The outermost ring of the church is the Qane Mahlet, or 'Choir', where the liturgy is performed and the congregation stand. There are normally partitions to separate male and female worshippers. Those worshippers who are not in the correct state of ritual purity to enter the church may stand outside in the ambulatory or in the grounds of the church compound to hear the service. The interior walls of the church, particularly of the Sanctuary, are usually covered with wall paintings or hung with icons.

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