Investigations in Lalibela, Ethiopia, are revealing that Africa's most important historical Christian site is much older than previously thought. Up until now, scholars have regarded the spectacular complex of 11 rock-cut churches as dating from around A.D. 1200, but new survey work carried out by a British archaeologist suggests that three of the churches may have originally been "built" half a millennium earlier as fortifications or other structures in the waning days of the Axumite Empire.
"The discovery will completely change the way historians perceive the origins of Africa's most famous indigenous Christian site," says David Phillipson, professor of African archaeology at Cambridge University. His research, to be fully published next year, suggests that two of the churches, those of Merkurios (a local Ethiopian saint) and the archangel Gabriel, were initially carved out of the rock as some sort of elite palace or fortress complex. A third structure created in that same early period later became the church of Danagel (the Virgin Martyrs). The Merkurios and Gabriel structures were built in highly defensible positions and may well have been the core of a fortified complex created during the politically unstable period that saw the disintegration of the Axumite Empire in the mid-seventh century A.D. At its peak in the third to sixth centuries A.D., that empire controlled much of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, and at times Yemen and even part of the Nile Valley.go to the site: