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

The historical and archaeological EthioChrisProcess project aims to study the Christianisation in Ethiopia as a process, paying attention to the period following the first conversion of the 4th century. The goal is to analyse the "second Christianisation" as a phase that extend over several centuries, from the monasticism introduction (from the 6th century) until the reign of saints-kings dynasty, the Zagwe (11th-13th centuries).


The EthioChrisProcess project, coordinated by Marie-Laure Derat, has been selected by the French National agency for research (ANR) in summer 2017. Financed for 4 years, from 2017 till 2021, it involves four institutional partners : the French centre for Ethiopian studies (CFEE) in Addis Ababa, and, in France, the Orient & Méditerranée laboratory (UMR 8167, CNRS, Université Paris 1, Université Paris 4, École Pratique des Hautes Études), the Institut des Mondes africains (IMAF, UMR 8171, CNRS, Université Paris 1, EHESS, IRD, Université Aix-Marseille) and the TRACES laboratory (“Travaux et recherches archéologiques sur les cultures et les espaces et les sociétés”) in Toulouse (UMR 5608, CNRS, Université de Toulouse II Jean-Jaurès et Ministère de la culture et de la communication) as well as many French and foreign scientic collaborators.

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 geographical area of this research encompasses the Red Sea coast (including the ancient port of Adoulis) until the south highlands of Lālibalā, enclosing the city of Aksum and the Tigray region. This will enable to study every archaeological works done in the region and to consider inscriptions, steles and archaeological remains as records of the Christianity and Islam advance and of their interactions with paganism. Nevertheless, fieldwork will be limited to two key-regions, located in central Ethiopia : south-eastern Tigray and Lālibalā region.

The project will be developed around three kind of investigations :

• The first one aims to clarify three different moments in the Christianization process – at the 7th, 9th-10th and 11th-12th centuries –, when religious interactions crystalize. For that purpose, different categories of document will be taken in account : epigraphic sources, manuscript, numismatic and iconographic documentation, archaeological remains, and Arabic sources. It will particularly question the Aksumite kingdom decline, in relation with religious changes happening in Ethiopia in the last third of the first millennium. Defined studies will summarize Christianization and reactions to this process, first contacts with Islam and Aksum kingdom decline.

• The second kind of investigation concerns the whole period and tackle the question of Christianization through the development of the monasticism, looking at texts and images circulation between Egypt, Nubia and Ethiopia. In this context, it is necessary to observe which are the monastic models chosen by the Ethiopian Christians and the economic founding principles of the communities, through analysing the figures of Antoine and Macaire in the first Ethiopian monks’ hagiographies and in the pictorial representations on the first hand, and studying a painted group in a church showing an iconography inspired by Coptic and Nubian models on the other hand. Finally, pious donations from old monk communities will be taken in account to enhance property concentration by monasteries and changes in social status of those who work the land. Studying this documentary corpus will renew the question of monasteries participation to the regional economy change and reorientation, which is still not well-known.

• The third kind of investigation is an archaeological approach aiming to notice mutations and religious interactions from a material point of view. It will concentrate on conversion of places of worship and on funeral practice changes. Two sites have been selected, Nāzrēt Māryām and Lālibalā, because of the information they can provide concerning non-Christian sites turning into Christian sites, or sanctuary superimposition.

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.

ANR members :

- Marie-Laure Derat, DR CNRS, Orient et Méditerranée
- Claire Bosc-Tiessé, INHA scientific advisor
- Anaïs Wion, CR CNRS, IMAF
- Robin Seignobos, IFAO member
- Martina Ambu, PhD candidate at university of Paris I, Orient et Méditerranée
- François-Xavier Fauvelle, DR CNRS, TRACES
- Romain Mensan, TRACES
- Alebachew Belay, PhD candidate at university of Toulouse, TRACES
- Lucile Denizot, PhD candidate at university of Toulouse, TRACES
- Yves Gleize, INRAP, PACEA
- Antoine Garric, IE CNRS, CFEETK
- Amélie Chekroun, CR CNRS, IREMAM
- Deresse Ayenachew, Professor at University of Debre Berhan
- Emmanuel Fritsch, CFEE associated researcher
- Wolbert Smidt, CFEE associated researcher
- Anne-Lise Goujon, PhD candidate at university of Paris X
- Kidane Maryam Wolde Giyorgis, CFEE associated researcher
- Nafisa Valieva, PhD candidate at university of Hambourg
- Alexandros Tsakos, curator, University of Bergen
- Laurence Meslin, IE CNRS, Sciences faculty of Montpellier
- François Guéna, Professor at Architecture School of Paris
- Jean-Didier Mertz, IR, LRMH