Prestige Architecture in Early Medieval Ethiopia


ACLS Fellowship Program


Art History


The rock-hewn churches of Tigray, Ethiopia, despite numbering in the hundreds, have not been the subjects of proper academic study. This project, limited to those Tigrayan churches that are not basilicas, is the first monographic study of its kind and 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 occurred between Ethiopia, the Islamic world and India in the early Middle Ages. This project dates these churches to 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. The churches depict a reimagined 6th century (replete with archaic furnishings), rendered through a lens of local architectural practices and contemporary innovations from the Islamic world.