Capital Ethiopia Newspaper

The Unfinished Church of Yekka Mika’el

Readers who have not yet seen it, should visit the  never finished Rock Church of Yekka Mika’el  situated in Addis Ababa, just behind the British Embassy. It is the subject of an interesting article by Bruce Strachan in the current (April 2012) issue of the scholarly London periodical Cornerstone.
My present article seeks to supplement Bruce’s most timely work by seeking to trace the history of the old church’s “discovery” over recent centuries.

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By way of introduction one may say that the formal adoption of Christianity by the Aksumite kingdom in the early fourth century AD was followed by the founding of innumerable churches. Many of the earliest were built-up structures of conventional design, but others were Rock-hewn excavations of the type most famous at Lalibela – but most ornately decorated in Tegray. Such churches, carved from the living rock, are widely distributed throughout the Ethiopian region from what is now Eritrea in the north, to the vicinity of Goba in the south – no small area.
The excavation of rock-hewn churches – at Lalibela – is mentioned in the Ethiopian Synaxarium, and in the Gadl, or Acts, of the monarch of that name. The churches  of Lalibela were later described by the Portuguese priest Francesco Alvares, who inspected them in the 1520s, and their geographical location is indicated on a map produced in 1643-6 by the Portuguese Jesuit missionary Manoel de Almeida.
Churches such as those of Lalibela were well known as places of worship and/or pilgrimage, in many cases situated on trade routes, and therefore familiar not only to the inhabitants of the area, but also to travelers from near and far.
The remarkable antiquity now widely known as Washa Mika’él, or St Michael’s cave, at Yekka – with which we are today concerned – differed from the above-mentioned  churches in that it was never finished, and therefore as far as we know may  never have served any religious function. It was for this reason slower to attract the attention of churchmen, travelers or scholars.

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The “discovery” of our Yekka antiquity awaited the emergence in the early 19th century of the Shawan state, and in particular two visits between 1839 and 1842 by the French traveler Charles-François-Xavier Rochet, of Héricourt, better known as Rochet d’Héricourt. He inspected the site, by then largely ruined, on his second visit, when he reports that what he called the “grotto” was situated in a locality inhabited by Oromos of the Kathafo clan. It was understood by Rochet and others that the excavation of caves was a widespread practice in Shawa.
Rochet does not mention the names Yekka, Mika’él, or Washa, by which the antiquity under discussion was later known, but states that the reigning Shawan monarch King Sahla Sellasé had asked him what he thought of the said grotto. He replied that he thought that it represented the remains of a religious structure dating back to the time of the introduction of Christianity into the country. The King observed that this was also the opinion of the Ethiopian priests attached to his court.

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Emperor Menilek’s victory over the Italians at the battle of Adwa, half a century later in 1896, led, as we all know, to enhanced European interest in Ethiopia. Only a few months later a mission to the country was dispatched by the French Ministry of the Colonies. It inspected the antiquity at Yekka, which it for the first time referred to by that name, and reported that it was largely in ruins, and covered with brushwood and creepers. In its vicinity they saw a small apparently modern round church, not earlier mentioned by Rochet d’Héricourt. It was dedicated to St Mika’él.
The site was also briefly visited around 1901-3 by a French scientific mission led by the Viscomte de Bourg de Bozas. It took the absurdly  simplistic view that the construction of such a work in stone was beyond the then technological ability of the “Abyssinians”, let alone those of former times, and that the structure, they concluded, must therefore have been the remains of a Portuguese church.

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The antiquity at Yekka was later inspected in the early 20th century by a more serious observer, Dr Lincoln De Castro of the Italian Legation in Addis Ababa. He devoted a chapter in his study Nella terra dei Negus to what he terms the “artificial grotto” or ‘’troglodytic convento, i.e. monastery’’, of Yekka. He reports that the local people of the area believed it had been excavated at the time of Emperor Zar/a Yaqob, who reigned from 1434 to1468.

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The first detailed study of what he refers to as the Monolithic Church of Yekka (and was then apparently also spoken of – by foreigners?, – as the “Portuguese ruins” of Yekka) was carried out in the early 1930s by Canon A.F. Matthew, the then Chaplain of St Matthew’s,  the Anglican Church in Addis Ababa . A copy of his report was later acquired by the Editors of the Journal of Ethiopian Studies who published it posthumously in 1969. Writing in December 1934.Matthews observed:
“Were the churches of Lalibela less inaccessible, these ruins of an incomplete church would not call for much attention. But they are of interest to those who cannot get to Lalibela as giving some idea of the method of constructing a monolithic church, and so are worth a detailed description, especially as they are not likely to continue even in their present state of delapidation much longer. The last fifty years have seen a great extension of the ruination; it is my impression, though I cannot state it as a definite fact, that the stone over the east and west windows to the south wall have fallen since 1930. It cannot be long before the growth of vegetation on all the walls will complete the work of destruction”.
Today’s comment for Capital readers:
See for yourself, dear readers, the old, unfinished rock church, one of the largest ever conceived in Ethiopia – and an antiquity of great importance for the study of the country’s archaeology- is still today in need of attention. And you could do worse than seek out Bruce Strachan’s article.