Following the collapse of the late antique empire of Aksum, northern Ethiopia entered a “dark age” period, wherein little is known of the region. However, around the year 1000, a triad of cruciform churches were hewn out of rock in East Tigray, unparalleled in scale, form and the use of vaulting. This talk argue that these rock-cut churches were built in a period where Fatimid Egyptian investment in the Red Sea trade promoted a post-Aksumite state which in turn provided economic and political stability in northern Ethiopia. This also involved the sending of new ecclesiastical authorities from the Coptic Patriarchate, newly relocated to Fustat. These churches as such exhibit experimental forms in Ethiopian architecture, including spatial hierarchy based around a central module, and barrel vaulting: features which were not found in the region earlier. This paper locates these enigmatic buildings within broader historical citations and revivalism that occurred in the art and architecture of the Mediterranean, produced around the year 1000. It proposes that the radical plan and articulation the three churches embody was effectively a reinvention of the aisled cruciform churches of late antiquity, engineered through new architectural techniques introduced from Fatimid Egypt.
Mikael Muehlbauer is a specialist in the architecture of Medieval Ethiopia and Egypt. He is currently a Core-Lecturer in Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University where he earned his PhD in 2020. His book project is the first monographic study of cruciform churches in northern Ethiopia, informed by extensive field research and site documentation there. Mikael Muehlbauer’s research has been supported by grants and fellowships from Dumbarton Oaks, the American Research Center in Egypt, the Historians of Islamic Art Association, the Society of the Architectural Historians and the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He has published articles in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, West 86th and Aethiopica.