The World

Ethiopia: Homeland of Humanity (II)

In this second part of a two-part series of articles on Ethiopia, Ferrara introduces us to Christianity, culture and Jewish influence in this country.

Gerardo Ferrara-December 9, 2023-Reading time: 7 minutes

An Ethiopian man displaced by war, 2022 ©OSV/Baz Ratner, Reuters

As mentioned in the previous article, Ethiopia is home to several Semitic languages with distinctive characteristics. The oldest and best known is the liturgical and literary language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo Church, Ge'ez. It is a South-Arabic Semitic language related to Sabaean and written with an alphabet also called Ge'ez (common to the Amharic, Tigrinya and Tigré languages, its direct descendants, as well as other Ethiopian languages).

A unique culture

Ge'ez seems to derive from an even older language, spoken in the kingdom of D'mt, directly related to Sabaean and written with the same Sudarabic Musnad alphabet. Today, it is practically extinct in spoken form, replaced by Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia at the federal level), Tigrinya, Tigrinya and other Semitic languages, while the other widely spoken language in Ethiopia is Oromo (the Cushitic language of the Oromo ethnic group, the majority in the country). Arabic, Somali, Semitic languages such as Gauga and others are also present, making a total of more than ninety languages and one hundred ethnic groups.

The majority of the population is Christian (more than 62%), mostly adhering to the Tawahedo Orthodox Church. A third of the population, on the other hand, belongs to Islam, which had already arrived in the area during the life of Mohammed (the episode of the reception by the king of Aksum, Ashama, of a few dozen of his companions persecuted in Mecca by the pagans is famous).

Also famous is the presence of a very ancient Jewish community, the Beta Israel (also known vulgarly as Falashah), whose origins are lost in time, and who were almost completely evacuated from Ethiopia. Indeed, during the DERG era, due to famine, discrimination and governmental violence, the Beta Israel migrated to Sudan, also finding there a hostile government. Overcrowded in refugee camps and dying by the hundreds in the long desert crossings between Ethiopia and Sudan, Israel organized a series of secret missions between the 1980s and 1990s, called Operation Moses, Operation Joshua and Operation Solomon, in which some 95,000 Ethiopian Jews, 85% of the community, were airlifted. Today, 135,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel (who have also suffered discrimination here over the years) and about 4,000 in Ethiopia.

Another interesting religious phenomenon in the country is that of the Rastafarians (already mentioned in the previous article), who, while accepting the holy books and doctrine of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, venerate the figure of Haile Selassie as "Jesus in his second coming in glory". This doctrine originated mainly as a form of "Ethiopian" nationalism and evolved through the preaching of its leader and founder, the Jamaican Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1887-1940), spreading worldwide mainly through the reggae music of other Jamaicans, Bob Marley (1945-1981) and Peter Tosh (1944-1987).

Rastafarians have a deep respect for other religions, although they reject polytheism, and believe that Haile Selassie I did not die, but simply hid himself voluntarily from the eyes of humanity.

Christianity in Ethiopia

The majority of Ethiopian Christians profess the Tawahedo Orthodox faith. By Orthodox, when we speak of Christian Churches, and not only of the Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian or other Churches, we are not referring to the Byzantine Orthodox, but to the denomination that a particular Church gives itself. In fact, the term "Orthodoxy", of Greek origin, literally means "right doctrine". We can say, therefore, that every Christian Church calls itself "orthodox", in reference to the others, which are considered "heterodox", that is, partially in error with respect to right doctrine.

The word ge'ez "tawahedo" (ተተዋሕዶ: "made one", "unified") refers to the Miaphysite doctrine that sanctions the unique and unified nature of Christ, that is, the complete union of the human and divine nature (not mixed but not separated either). We speak, in this case, of "hypostatic" union. The non-Chalcedonian miaphysite doctrine is opposed to the Chalcedonian diaphysite doctrine (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant), which professes the coexistence of two natures in Christ, human and divine. As reported in the articles on Armenian Christians and CoptsThe separation between the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Churches centered precisely on the Christological question, that is, the nature of Christ, on which the Council of Chalcedon of 451 pronounced itself.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo Church is, therefore, a non-Chalcedonian Church: that is, it does not recognize the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon. It was closely linked, from its origins with the abuna (bishop) Frumentius, in the 4th century A.D., to the Church of Egypt, since Frumentius himself was consecrated bishop and sent to Ethiopia by the Patriarch of Alexandria, Athanasius. It currently has about 50 million faithful, mostly in Ethiopia, and constitutes the largest of all the non-Chalcedonian Eastern Churches, including the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Syro-Orthodox Orthodox Church, the Syro-Malankar Orthodox Church of India and the Tawahedo Orthodox Churches of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

According to Ethiopian tradition, Christianity entered the country as early as the first century A.D., with the eunuch official of Queen Candace, baptized by Philip, mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. This Queen Candace really existed: Gersamot Händäke VII, queen of Ethiopia around the middle of the 1st century AD.

However, we have seen that Christianity became the state religion in 400 A.D., when the young Axumite king Ezanà was converted by Frumentius, who later became the first bishop of Ethiopia (according to Rufinus in his "Ecclesiastical History"). From then on, and until the beginning of the 20th century, it was up to the Patriarch of Alexandria (pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt) to appoint the Ethiopian archbishop (archieparch) and the primate of the Tawahedo Church was an Egyptian Copt. The Ethiopian Church then obtained autocephaly.

The fortunes of the two Churches, Ethiopian and Egyptian, continued to intertwine even under Islamic rule, to the point that in 1507 the Emperor of Ethiopia asked for and obtained the help of Portugal against the Muslims who sought to conquer the country. Later it was the turn of the Jesuits to enter the Abyssinian Empire, encountering strong opposition from the locals.

These were always firmly opposed to foreign influence, to the point that, when in 1624 the emperor Susenyos converted to Catholicism in exchange for the military support of Portugal and Spain and forced his subjects to do the same, he was forced to abdicate and in 1632 his son Fasilides reconverted to Coptic orthodoxy and restored it as the state religion, banishing Europeans, including the Jesuits, from his territories and burning all Catholic books. For centuries, foreigners were not allowed to enter the empire.

The Tawahedo Orthodox Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria only "separated" in 1959, when Pope Cyril of Alexandria crowned Abuna Basilios the first Patriarch of Ethiopia. The Eritrean Tawahedo Church also separated from the Ethiopian Church in 1993, with the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia.

Today, Ethiopian Tawahedo Christians number about 50 million in Ethiopia, along with 12 million Protestants and a small minority of Catholics. They are mainly concentrated in the north, south and center of the country (in historical Abyssinia, cradle of the Axumite kingdom and the Ethiopian Empire). On the other hand, one third of Ethiopians are Muslims, although the Islam practiced in Ethiopia is also very peculiar, since it has been isolated for centuries under the aegis of the Ethiopian emperors and their xenophobia and has borrowed many elements from Christianity. On the other hand, Ethiopian Christianity is also heavily influenced by Judaism and vice versa.

Jewish influence

The Jewish influence, although not obviously manifest in the veneration of the Trinity (in ge'ez: Selassie), the Virgin Mary and the saints, is particularly evident in the worship. Indeed, only priests are allowed to enter the sancta sanctorum (tabòt, i.e., "ark") of the Church during the celebration, while most of the faithful remain outside the sacred precincts.

It is also evident in the value attributed to Old Testament practices and teachings, such as the observance of Shabbat, along with Sunday, the kashrùt-type dietary rules and the prohibition of pork, the prohibition of women entering the church during their menstrual cycle and the obligation that they always cover their heads with a cloth called shamma, as well as occupy a place separate from that of the men.

In addition, great importance is given to ritual purity: only the faithful who feel pure, who have fasted (ritual fasting involves a program of periodic abstinence from meat and animal products and/or sexual activity for a total period of 250 days per year, based on the autonomous choice of the faithful or imposed by the liturgy) and maintained a conduct in conformity with the commandments of the Church receive the Eucharist. Thus, generally only children and the elderly receive communion, while persons of sexual age usually abstain from communion.

Some curiosities

Just as Muslims do when entering a mosque, Ethiopian Christian worshippers remove their shoes when entering a church. In addition, they kiss the ground in front of the door, as the church is a sacred place. Compared to other Christian churches, more importance is given to the practice of exorcism, performed in special meetings in the church.

The liturgical language is still Ge'ez (which is a bit like Latin for Catholics), although since the 19th century, and especially in the time of Haile Selassie, the Canon of the Holy Scriptures has been translated into Amharic and other common languages, which are also used for sermons and homilies. The Canon consists of the same books as other Christian Churches, with the addition of some typical books, such as Enoch, the Jubilees and the I, II and III Meqabyan (Ethiopian Maccabees).

Pilgrimage is also of great importance, especially to Axum, Ethiopia's holiest city, and Lalibela, famous for its monolithic churches (carved in one piece in the rock) that are usually built from top to bottom by digging into the ground, so they are not visible from the outside.

A final curiosity is the Ethiopian tradition according to which the Ark of the Covenant is located inside the Tabot Chapel of Axum, to which only priests have access, so no one else has had the opportunity to see and analyze the sacred object so far.

The authorGerardo Ferrara

Writer, historian and expert on Middle Eastern history, politics and culture.

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