Monuments and religious buildings

Kingship was crucially important to Ethiopian Christian society. Early cultural activity, until the tenth century, was based at Aksum in the north of the country. Aksum was a prosperous trading centre linking the Mediterranean with India, as its gold coinage attests. Early stone stelae (obelisks) survive from before 400, carved in storeys or registers, with blind windows. These are believed to mark the burial places of kings. The sacred Solomonic lineage, traced to the house of Solomon and David, remained unbroken, aside from the period of the Zagwe dynasty (from the Lasta province) in the twelfth century ce to the time of the Emperor Haile Selassie, overthrown in 1974. According to Ethiopian tradition, the first king of Ethiopia, Manalik, was the son of Solomon and the Oueen of Sheba (the Ethiopian Oueen Makeda), who is believed to have travelled to Jerusalem to see his father and to have brought back the true Ark of the Covenant. It is still claimed to reside in the Cathedral of St Mary of Zion in Aksum.

This is the basis of the several Judaic features of Ethiopic Christianity, under which a symbolic replica of the Ark of the Covenant, known as the tabot, is in every church. This takes the form of a consecrated stone tablet in a wooden chest. These chests are carved with crosses and several are also inscribed with the name of the thirteenth-century Zagwe ruler, Lalibala. It is the tablet of stone, rather than the structure of the church in which it is housed, that is the focus of consecration. The tablet is laid out on the chest for the celebration of the Eucharist and is always covered in the presence of the laity. Other Judaic elements include a form of the observance of the Sabbath and circumcision. Jerusalem and the holy places of Christ's life in the Holy Land remain of crucial importance. Throughout history pilgrims have travelled to the Holy Land from Ethiopia and desired the building of Jerusalem in Ethiopia, particularly at the site of Lalibala, named after the ruler. The names of the twelfth-century rock-cut churches of Lalibala replicate after individual holy sites, including Golgotha, the Holy Sepulchre and the site of the Nativity. The river at Lalibala is named Yrdanos after the River Jordan.

The Church and the court working together were the main stimuli for artistic production. Monasticism remained at the heart of Ethiopian Christianity. The great centres of early Ethiopian Christian culture and learning were founded in the north, notably those monasteries founded by the Nine Saints in Tigray which included the well-known monastery of Dabra Damo. The mid- to late thirteenth century saw monasteries being founded further south, such as the island monastery at Lake Hayq at Amhara (Dabra Hayq 'Hstifanos). Dabra Asbo at Shawa (later called Dabra Libanos from the mid-fifteenth century) was established by St Takla Haymanot of Shawa (d. 1313). Later the area of Lake Tana was developed as a monastic centre, mostly in the first half of the fourteenth century; the Monasteries of Dabra Daga 'Hstifanos and Dabra Gwegweben were established on its eastern shore. One of the great courtly centres in Ethiopian Christian history was developed at Gondar, which flourished between the mid-seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries. At this time the activities of Church and state were entwined, producing an unprecedented wealth of art, culture and scholarship. The rulers of Gondar built stone castles, built palaces and founded new churches and monasteries. They even rebuilt the cathedral of Aksum, which had been destroyed during the invasions of the 1530s, in the rectangular Gondar style.

Churches in Ethiopia were usually built of mud brick, with the emphasis on the sanctuary in which the tabot was displayed. The predominant plan, especially in the post-medieval period, was a tripartite plan, in which there was a central square sanctuary surrounded by two circles. The roof was thatched. Churches were decorated with paintings, especially over the altar. The paintings were frequently on linen, and included donor portraits and a record of the donation, and were attached to the walls. The richness of the churches of Shawa, for example, was described shortly before their destruction by the sixteenth-century Portuguese priest Francisco Alvares. Concerning earlier architecture, of which less is known, recent scholarship has emphasized the connection with and influence of early Christian architecture elsewhere, including the use of the basilica plan, of local materials and imported marble fragments in the building. The Cathedral of St Mary at Aksum, for example, was modelled on Jerusalemite architecture of the fourth century.

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