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Christianization and religious interactions in Ethiopia (6th-13th century): comparative approaches with Nubia and Egypt – EthioChrisProcess

Christianisation processes and religious interactions in Ethiopia. A comparative approach with Egypt and Nubia

This history and archaeology project aims to study the Christianization of Ethiopia as a process, analysing the period from the introduction of monasticism (from the 6th century) to the reign of a dynasty of saints-kings (11th-13th centuries). The aim is to understand the transition from an official but minority religion to a religion shared by an increasing number of people and the political, economic and social transformations brought about by this process.

Issues and objectives

EthioChrisProcess is part of a trend of new research on Ethiopian history and the history of late antiquity around the Red Sea, proposing to shift the focus to Christianization, over time and from a thematic point of view. The idea is to look at the effects of Christianisation in social and political terms over the long-term, from the 6th century to the 13th century. It is precisely on this period that studies are the least numerous, due to the disappearance of coins and inscriptions and the very low density of manuscripts.<br />The aim is to analyse the coexistence with other religions in a spatial but also cultural dimension and the economic and social transformations linked to the development of monastic communities. The approach envisaged is particularly concerned with erecting archaeological remains as full-fledged documents of the history of Christianisation. The crossing of textual and archaeological data, although complicated, is one of the most successful methods in recent years to compensate in particular for the lack of textual sources.<br />The project uses the sciences of erudition and more generally the humanities (epigraphy, numismatics, history of texts and archaeology), as well as digital humanities (online database of archival documents, encoded in XML/TEI). It combines each of these disciplinary fields to consider Christianization on scales other than that of power, proposes to open up the historiographies of Islamization and Christianization, and allows a comparison of Ethiopian Christianization with the processes at work in the neighbouring regions, Nubia and Egypt.

The project is based on three types of surveys:
- The first aims to shed light on three different moments in the Christianization process - in the 7th, 9th-10th and 11th-12th centuries - during which religious interactions crystallize, using various documentary registers: epigraphic sources, manuscripts, coins, iconography, archaeological remains, Arabic sources. In particular, it raises the question of the decline of the Aksumite kingdom, linked to the religious transformations that occurred in Ethiopia in the last third of the first millennium. Limited studies aim to review Christianization and reactions to the process of Christianization, early contacts with Islam, the decline of Aksum.
- The second type of surveys also covers the whole period, addressing the question of Christianization through the development of monasticism, focusing on the circulation of texts and images between Egypt, Nubia and Ethiopia. And in general, aims to integrate Ethiopia's neighbouring regions, also Christianized and then Islamicized, in order to propose comparisons on how religious interactions have affected these societies.
- The third type of survey is based on an archaeological approach. The aim is to identify religious changes and interactions from a material point of view, focusing on conversions of places of worship and transformations of funeral practices. Two ensembles were selected: Nazret Maryam and Lalibala. These two sites were chosen for the information they can provide on the transformation of non-Christian sites into Christian sites, or on the overlapping of sanctuaries. A third investigation concerns the burial mounds of the Shay culture, which are usually collective burials, belonging to pagan cults but testifying to a progressive Christianization.

Much of the work carried out in recent months has resulted in significant advances in archaeology. First, the remains of a large Egyptian-Ethiopian community living in Maryam Nazret have been uncovered. This site was only known from texts indicating that a church was built here by the head of the Ethiopian church in the 12th century. Two different construction sites were opened and revealed two particularly well preserved churches. The first one probably corresponds to the one mentioned in the texts, such as a 12th century building. Raised walls, entirely covered with plaster, were discovered, as well as wooden thresholds. It is in every respect part of an architectural style well known during the Fatimid period for Coptic churches. A second church was also the subject of initial surveys, revealing an architecture similar to the large 12th century church. Surveys have revealed other buildings that suggest a small city organized around these churches.
In addition, on the Lalibela site, a monumental habitat structure prior to the excavation of churches in the 13th century has been uncovered. This considerably changes our view of this site and the Christianization of the region. The settlement is from the 10th-11th centuries. Fires, ceramics, remains of wildlife consumption, monumental buildings confirm that this is an elite habitat site. The elite who occupied the area in the 11th century share many similarities with a culture identified further south of Lalibela, the Shay culture, which is known for its non-Christian funeral practices.
The results obtained in Lalibela and Maryam Nazret therefore make it possible to rethink Christianisation and its development over time, while highlighting hitherto unrecognised ecclesiastical structures, with the presence of an episcopal see.

Over the next 18 months, field research will continue, in an attempt to better understand the overlapping of places of worship at Maryam Nazret and Lalibela, since in both cases, the occupations are of different phases and probably very different cultures.
Work on the database of the manuscript archives began in 2019, but it will bear fruit in 2020. Once the documents of the manuscripts of the Gospels of Dabra Libanos and Abba Garima have been encoded, translated and analysed, the team will be able to better understand the evolution of these two monastic communities, its relationship to land and the way in which land ownership has contributed to transforming societies living on these lands, particularly from a religious point of view.
Interactions with Islam will also need to be analysed more closely. For the time being, it is the interactions between Christians and pagans that have been best documented by the project. But some documents also provide information on the relations between Christian and Muslim communities in the 11th and 12th centuries. On this subject, the research should show the decisive role of the Fatimid caliphate in these relationships.
The publication of the proceedings of the international research workshop organized in July 2019, on a comparative approach of bishops and bishoprics between Egypt, Nubia and Ethiopia, will also be completed in the coming months. It will lead to the organization of another research workshop with a comparative perspective, this time focusing on monasticism and the question of Christianization.

Papers at the 20th International Conference on Ethiopian Studies (Mekele, October 2018):
• BOSC-TIESSÉ C., DERAT M.-L., “History and archaeology of Lalibela in the “longue durée”: a site in constant evolution”.
• DERAT M.-L., FRITSCH E., “An unexpected discovery: the re-surfacing story of a long-forgotten metropolitan ecclesiastical centre at Maryam Nazret”.
• AMBU M., “Monastic interconnections. The Desert Fathers reimagined by the Ethiopian Monasticism”

Publications - monographs:
• BOSC-TIESSE C. & DERAT M.-L., (sous presse) : Lalibela, site rupestre chrétien d’Éthiopie, Toulouse, Presses Universitaires du Midi (collection Sites et cités d’Afrique).
• DERAT M.-L., L’énigme d’une dynastie sainte et usurpatrice dans le royaume chrétien d’Éthiopie XIe-XIIIe siècle, Tunrhout, Brepols, 2018.

Articles :
• DERAT M.-L., « Trônes et sanctuaires : victoires, donations et religions à Aksoum (IVe-VIIe siècles) », in S. Destephen, B. Dumézil and H. Inglebert (ed.), Le Prince chrétien de Constantin aux royautés barbares (IVe-VIIIe siècle), Paris (Travaux et Mémoires, 22/2), 2018, p. 545-567.
• DERAT M.-L., « L’Éthiopie chrétienne et islamique (VIIe-XVIe siècle) », in F.-X. Fauvelle, L’Afrique ancienne. De l’Acacus au Zimbabwe. 20 000 avant notre ère – XVIIe siècle, Paris, Belin (collection « Mondes anciens »), 2018.

Research valorization
- article by Fabienne Lemarchand in the Cahiers de Science et Vie, «La Jérusalem africaine se révèle«, June 2018, p. 20-23, which presents the work carried out in Lalibela and in particular the 3D restitution of the different digging phases.

The EthioChrisProcess project aims to study the Christianization process in Ethiopia, focusing on the period after the conversion of the Aksumite kings (in the 4th century), proposing to analyze the "second Christianization" as a phase that spans centurie from the introduction of monasticism (from the 6th century) to the reign of a dynasty of saints-kings, the Zagwe (11th-13th centuries). The choice of this chronological boundary is explained by the fact that these sovereigns established a real Christian government in Ethiopia, directing the royal largesses and the riches of the kingdom towards pious donations.This project has the ambition to better understand the transition from a state religion, which involved only a minority in the Aksumite kingdom, to a shared religion by a growing number of people, with a focus on the social and political transformations that this process has created. The three inputs to grasp this process are: taking into account the relationships between Pagans, Christians and Muslims; The study of monastic development, as the motor of Christianization, and of the adopted monastic model as a factor of societal choice; The analysis of the economic and social transformations induced by the introduction of monasticism. To provide the tools for reflection and comparison, this project on the Christianization of Ethiopia and religious interactions must take into account the work carried out on neighboring areas in Egypt and Nubia (present-day Sudan) The economic and social impact of the development of monasticism, changes in practices such as funerary practices, and interactions with pagans and Muslims, including analysis of transformations of places of worship.
The chronological scale and the articulation between Christianity, religious interactions and comparison with Egypt and Nubia are necessary, justified and controlled. Necessary due to scarcity and disparity of sources; Justified because the Egyptian-Nubian-Ethiopian space is a mediaeval circulation space; Controlled because we open specific windows related to the availability of documentation and our topic. By looking on markers of Christianity, trying to understand how land concentration in the hands of religious institutions changed the Ethiopian society and pondering how Christianity took place in the neighboring regions of Ethiopia, Nubia and Egypt, it is the question of Christian penetration in Ethiopia, its relationship to Muslim penetration, its cultural, social and territorial impact that EthioChrisProcess wants to question.

Project coordination

Marie-Laure Derat (Orient et Méditerranée, textes - archéologie - histoire)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


IMAf Institut des mondes africains
TRACES Travaux et Recherches Archéologiques sur les Cultures, les Espaces et les Sociétés
COLLEGE DE FRANCE Chaire Histoire et archéologie des mondes africains
CFEE Centre français des études éthiopiennes à Addis Abeba
UMR 8167 Orient et Méditerranée, textes - archéologie - histoire
UMR 8167 Orient et Méditerranée, textes - archéologie - histoire

Help of the ANR 320,909 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: September 2017 - 48 Months

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