Ethiopia: The Living Churches of an Ancient Kingdom (Book Review)

It was early in the fourth century AD, under the reign of King Ezana, when the ancient Kingdom of Aksum (or Axum) – a major naval and trading nation that spanned a large portion of east Africa, including modern-day northern Ethiopia – embraced the Orthodox tradition of Christianity. The capital city of the empire was Aksum, and at the time was considered to be part of only a handful of Christian states in the world. Research shows that the kingdom used the name “Ethiopia” as early as the fourth century.

However, it was during the seventh century when the empire slowly began to decline as Aksum was faced with the rise of Islam which was spreading west from the Arabian Peninsula. The Islamic Empire took control of the Red Sea trading routes, forcing Aksum into economic isolation. Even if not threatened directly, Aksum was now cut off from its Christian allies around the Mediterranean. Its power waned. While many northeastern African states were converting to Islam, the Christian kingdom of Aksum maintained its faith. Christianity became the distinguishing feature of the nation – a rallying cry, an emblem of kinship that transcended the importance of any single ruler – and they produced a rich legacy of monasteries and churches that demonstrated the tenets of their faith.

It is these churches, monasteries, the vibrant art and traditions of worship that have been encapsulated in the book Ethiopia: The Living Churches of an Ancient Kingdom, by Mary Anne Fitzgerald and Philip Marsden. The book traces the broad sweep of ecclesiastical history, legend, and art, covering sixty-six breathtaking churches that astound with their architecture, colorful decorations, and important religious festivals.

[The entry to Debre Damo church is only by a leather rope]

Over 800 stunning photos capture the life that is often unseen by visitors and, presents these places in all their splendor while also recording the daily observances of the faithful. Join us as we go on a brief visual exploration into Ethiopia’s Christian heritage.

Mary Anne Fitzgerald has covered eastern Africa for The Economist, the Financial Times, and The Sunday Times of London, and is the author of eleven books on Africa, including the bestselling Nomad: One Woman’s Journey into the Heart of Africa. She lives in Kenya. Philip Marsden is the award-winning author of a number of books of travel, history, and fiction, including The Chains of Heaven: An Ethiopian Romance and The Barefoot Emperor: An Ethiopian Tragedy. He lives in England. Nigel Pavitt MBE OGW has written five books on Africa illustrated with his own photographs. They include Kenya: The First Explorers, Samburu, Turkana: Kenya’s Nomads of the Jade Sea, and Africa’s Great Rift Valley. He lives in Kenya. Frederic Courbet is a Belgian photographer and cameraman whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, Time magazine, and Newsweek. He lives in Australia. Justus Mulinge is a young Kenyan photographer who lives in Nairobi with his wife and two sons. With his eye for detail, he was an important member of the photographic team for this book.

The book, Ethiopia: The Living Churches of an Ancient Kingdom (published by The American University in Cairo Press), unveils never before seen photographs of various religious sites in Ethiopia. With over 800 color photographs taken by talented photographs, this full-color volume is the most comprehensive celebration ever published of Ethiopia’s extraordinary Christian heritage.