What is Medieval Ethiopian Monolithic Architecture?

We may not know where in the world is Carmen Sandiego, but Bruce Strachan is busily recording history in Sub-Saharan Africa. A number of years ago I commissioned Strachan (top right), an editorial and children’s book illustrator,  to do illustrations for the New York Times Book Review (see below bottom). Today he’s doing something a little different. . . in Ethiopia. He’s attempting to rescue the Washa-Mikael church, a vivid example of medieval Ethiopian monolithic architecture. As part of my infrequent series of “is there life after graphic design and illustration” today’s Daily Heller focuses on Strachan’s movable feast of talents.

You went from editorial illustrator to specialist in medieval Ethiopian monolithic architecture. How in heavens name? A decade ago my then partner, who was working for the UN, received instructions that she was to be transferred to Ethiopia. This news came, needless to say, as a bit of a shock. Incredibly, later that same day a second bolt came in from out of the blue: Christy Ottaviano, editor at Henry Holt Books, called and asked me to write and illustrate a children’s book about Ancient Egypt. I quickly visualized the map of Africa and then replied, “Would it be okay to do Egypt from along the Nile?”

Admittedly I was stretching it a bit, but the Blue Nile does in fact wind through Ethiopia before joining the White. Christy very considerately agreed to the scheme, and so I sublet my Brooklyn apartment and three months later found myself living in a gritty Addis Ababa neighborhood called Kazanchis, where I promptly set up an art studio under a Wanza tree.

As it turned out, my new home wasn’t all that close to the Nile. But there was this little stream nearby, and one day an affable fellow named Jalata and I followed that little stream up into the pastoral hills outside the city. There we came across a shepherd who kindly offered to lead us to a church atop a mountain. ‘Why not?’ I replied. It was sweltering and Jalata and I were thirsty. We hadn’t carried water because we didn’t anticipate walking quite so far. The idea of visiting some church didn’t really interest us frankly, but we were parched, and a church would have water. So off we went with the shepherd and his goats.

When our little assembly reached the top, an elder wearing a traditionally hand-woven robe received us enthusiastically – visitors, he confided, were few and far between. He directed us to a landscape of juniper and eucalyptus trees, where a gigantic hole had been gouged out of the earth. It looked like a quarry. Jalata and I approached and peered in to behold a basilica the size of a New York City townhouse hewn straight from the solid rock. The shepherd boy had spoken about a church, but given my linguistic inaptitude I didn’t grasp that he meant architectural wonder. Jalata and I looked at each other in jaw-dropping disbelief.

It was love at first sight. Rescuing Washa-Mikael became my passion, but to achieve this Bruce the illustrator had to turn into Bruce the activist on behalf of endangered cultural heritage.

Are you still an artist? Oh for sure yes, but I’ve had to adapt to a local marketplace where there isn’t a whole lot of demand for art. I still make magazine illustrations, sculptures and paintings, but moreover I’m a writer.

My first attempt at writing had been ten years earlier when Christy Ottaviano was audacious enough to take a chance on me with the Ancient Egypt assignment. But whereas visual art came naturally, writing didn’t – it required colossal effort, strong coffee, a calm environment, and a whole lot of that scarcest of all commodities: time. Kazanchis was ideal – hardly any ringing phones or blaring televisions – barely even an internet connection, let alone electricity – in short, no diversions. You might say that Ethiopia is the ultimate writer’s cabin.

Are there any skills derived as an illustrator that you brought with you into this rather arcane but fascinating field? You know Steve, I once asked myself, why does Heller always call on me to do portraits of dead folks? Thomas Jefferson, Marcel Duchamp, George Washington, Alexis de Tocqueville, General MacArthur, et cetera, et cetera. Then one day it occurred to me that I must have some particular knack for capturing history. I thought more about it. There were even times when I actually began to feel like I was performing art séances – summoning souls passed, and then interning their vestiges to lumps of clay. This activity of intensely focusing on, and attempting to visualize and capture historical essence remains constant in the work I now do when piecing back together Ethiopia. Sounds unscientific I know, but there seems to be room for contributions from we intuitive types. Howard Carter was an artist who had no archeological credentials – that didn’t stop him from finding King Tutankhamen.

In a more practical sense my three-dimensional illustration, design and photography skills have also been useful for putting together effective media tools related to the study and conservation of medieval Ethiopia – my various web publications for instance, or the three-dimensional scale models and schematic drawings I’ve created for the National Museum of Ethiopia.

Okay, rather than beat around the bush any longer. What is Ethiopian monolithic architecture and where do you practice this expertise? Monolithic architecture (below, second from bottom) is really quite fascinating – it’s structural design in which the building is hewn directly from one solid mass of rock, rather than being assembled by fixing separate pieces together. Typically monolithic structures also feature design elements artfully sculpted to mimic those of fabricated architecture, such as pillars, beams, arches and cornices. There are over 100 examples of this type of architecture in Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea, the most celebrated being the eleven spectacular 12-13thcentury rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Related examples can also be found elsewhere, notably within countries that participated in the Silk Road trade.

Initially my aim was simply to raise awareness around, and advocate conservation of the one Washa-Mikael site, but after meeting with advanced scholars I learned that there were a number of other similarly needy sites that’d been lost as a result of the Abyssinian-Adel war, which ravaged Ethiopia during the early 1500’s. Because all of these sites warrant attention I expanded my involvement accordingly.

Accessing these sites can require days of trekking, forging rivers, scaling mountains and occasionally having to sleep out under the stars. Adventures made all the less boring by intermittent encounters with uncongenial hyenas, argumentative leopards, or cantankerous crocodiles – not to mention all those gosh darn bugs. And oh, let’s not forget snakes.

By the way, most people are perplexed by the terms ancient or medieval when applied within a sub-Saharan African context. Ethiopia’s ancient and medieval history is however quite profound. Strong diplomatic and trade links existed between the kingdoms of Abyssinia and those of Egypt, Arabia and Judea since early antiquity – such ties also extended less formally to partners as far flung as Greece, India and China. Lisbon and Venice developed crucial relationships during the 1400’s, in fact one site called Barara, which we’ve as yet failed to locate, is exquisitely illuminated on Fra Mauro’s 15th century Mappa Mundi. Finding this medieval capitol will be an immense archeological breakthrough.

You’ve spent as much time in exotic places as you have in the U.S. Is this your future? Will you be the wandering ex-pat the rest of your days? My crystal ball is unclear about this. As stated earlier, my arrival in Africa came about purely by inexplicable chance. I didn’t consciously seek to come, but now that I’ve been here for some time I’ve grown accustomed to it – I’m comfortable and at home.

By the way, I now have roots, or branches you might say, over here because I’m married to a Kenyan, through whom I’m automatically part of an extended family. I’m also the proud papa of two lovely children Muila and Alexander who, when visiting New York, love ice skating in Central Park, Ray’s Pizza and the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History – They’re truly little citizens of the world!

Bruce Strachan

Bruce Strachan

Bruce Strachan

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  1. Ethiopia is twice the size of Texas, but without clean water, electricity and sanitation in the rural areas. Water to Thrive raises money for clean water wells in Ethiopia. In 3.5 years, it has funded 172 wells and 100,000 Ethiopians have clean water for the first time in their history as a result. The people are kind and gentle and Ethoipia is the cradle of civilization. My husband who founded W2T and I are going back to check on recently completed wells in October. Africa needs clean water…$10 gives 1 person clean water for 20-25 years via Water to Thrive! Thanks for the article about Ethiopia…so many needs.  Joyce Moeller, Austin,TX