Twenty-eight years ago I wrote a review of African Ark, the mammoth coffee table book about the peoples and places of the Horn of Africa that displayed spectacular double-page pictures by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher.
“African Ark is not an ordinary book,” I eulogised then. “In fact it is almost not a book at all. Within its 14 by 10.5 inch covers lie an entire art gallery and museum…” I concluded then that; “there will never be anything to match it.”
Well now there is. Ethiopia: The Living Churches of an Ancient Kingdom is of the same length and breadth as African Ark but thicker, with over 520 pages, and with equally spectacular photographs – over 800 of them.
And as with African Ark, we are treated not only to pictures but also to elaborate and informative explanatory text.
The book, launched in Addis in January of this year, was sponsored by Ludwig Publishing, owned by Bruce Ludwig and his wife Carolyn.
It is the Ludwigs’ latest book on iconic sacred places, following Jewels in Our Crown: Churches of Los Angeles, The Churches of Egypt and The History and Religious Heritage of Old Cairo.
Indeed it was as a result of working on the books about Christianity in Egypt that they thought of extending the study to the history of that religion in Ethiopia.
It is quite extraordinary that the ancient Aksumite Kingdom, now a part of Ethiopia, was possibly the first nation in the world to convert to Christianity.
Not by conquest but by choice. It was as far back as AD 340 that King Ezana commissioned the construction of the basilica of St Mary of Tsion, and it is said that it was to this place that Menelik, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, brought the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments.
By the fifth century, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church had spread beyond Aksum into the countryside, and over the next millennium numerous spectacular churches were built on hilltops, hewn out of cliff faces and excavated out of solid rock, and they all continue to be in regular use.
“Even now in the twenty-first century,” we read in the opening chapter, “with power lines and roads stretching out over high ridges, and cell phones chattering in every town, visitors to Ethiopia are struck by its distinctiveness. The topography, the language, even the flora and fauna, all suggest a place apart. Nowhere is this more striking than in the country’s holy places.
The lead photographer for Ethiopia: The Living Churches of an Ancient Kingdom, Nigel Pavitt, had a much easier time with the photographic expedition compared with Beckwith and Fisher who undertook their photographic expeditions during the days of the Dergue in the 1980s having limited access and little security. But Pavitt had to confront different challenges.
Pavitt had first travelled to Ethiopia in 1968, to work on a film for the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, at a time when the churches in Tigray were hardly known to the outside world.
He returned 30 years later to take photographs for his Africa’s Great Rift Valley book and visited a number of Tigrayan churches for the first time.
Then in 2015 he was introduced to the Ludwigs, and between them they agreed on a list of churches to feature in this present volume.
Pavitt organised ground agents and a budget for himself and two other photographers, Frederic Courbet and Pavitt’s assistant, Justus Mulinge.
Having conducted as much research as possible, the trio set off in November of 2015 with an ambitious target of covering 54 churches in 28 days.
Amazingly, they managed to reach all of them by their deadline, including the one at Debre Damo that is only accessible by men using a rope of twined leather to climb up to it.
At least, as visitors, they were offered a thong and hauled up, but it was quite scary even so.
Getting to the churches was one thing, the lighting for photography was another, as their interiors are poorly lit and flash photography banned.
At the festival of Enkutatash (the Ethiopian New Year, held on September 11) he witnessed and recorded in Tigray, Pavitt solved the problem by arranging for a hundred tapers, slender candles, to be distributed to participants.
Elsewhere though, more advanced technology was called for. LED torches were the illuminators of choice.
Over the centuries many church paintings have been destroyed either due to invasions, or from weather conditions and leaking thatched roofs, but what remains is more than enough to give a deep sense of one of the most extensive and ancient Christian cultures in the world.
Pavitt introduced Mary Anne Fitzgerald to the Ludwigs. Fitzgerald first visited Ethiopia during the era of Emperor Haile Selassie, and used her great network of contacts to complement her renowned writing skills.
She worked with Philip Marsden, who provided historical accounts of the churches and the context of the state within which they flourished, allowing readers to understand the stories behind the images.
The Church in Ethiopia had never before had all the information assembled together, never mind in a single volume.
Fitzgerald and her colleague read widely and interviewed many scholars and historians, not least Prof Daniel Seifemichael Feleke, for fact checking.
Hopefully, the book will help stimulate tourism beyond the mainstream sites of Lalibela.