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Impressions of Ethiopian Religious Sites and Traditions

ETHIOPIA | Monday, 12 June 2017 | Views [489]

Home of the Ark of the Covenant

Home of the Ark of the Covenant

Impressions of Ethiopian Religious Sites and Traditions

Arrived at night from Victoria Falls via Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, in the south of the country. The drive from the airport to the hotel in downtown Addis Ababa was pleasantly short.  The hotel, the Saro-Maria, is new and clean and the area where it is situated bustles with activity.  Addis Ababa is considered the capital of Africa as it houses the seat of the African Union and many of the central African offices of international organizations, such as UNICEF. As with any major city in the developing world, Addis Ababa is an intricate mix of old and new, traditional ways and new technologies. It is a sprawling city with over 8 million semi official inhabitants and probably many many more who are not on any official roster. 

The area is situated in a high valley that has seen human and pre-human species occupation since hominids starting walking on two legs. The national museum has an excellent exhibit that showcases the variety of hominids from the greater Ethiopian region, including the famous Lucy and her supposed offspring. There are two good museums in the capital, the National Archeological Museum where Lucy is,  and the National Ethnological Museum, which is on the campus of the main university. Both have sections that are devoted to artifacts and paintings from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, although the collection in the Ethnological Museum is a bit more comprehensive. It is impossible to begin to comprehend what one sees across the country without having a passing understanding of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Ethnological Museum is a good introduction. The Ethnological Museum also has a wonderful display of traditional instruments, one of which is a 10 string cowhide covered square box lute-like instrument that is only played at Easter.  The large drums, which are in all of the churches, like the design of the churches themselves, have symbolic designs. The smaller end of the drum is the Old Testament foundation of the religion, the larger end, the New Testament. The animal twine that binds the drum are the wounds of Christ and the scarf that the musician uses to carry and hold the instrument are the linens that covered Christ’s body when he was taken down from the cross. Both museums have informative placards by the exhibits. One of them states that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has 250 official fasting days of which 180 are required for everyone.  It is no wonder the people are so thin!  & it seems to  me a fairly nefarious way to keep the people focused on the church rather than their hunger.

As in most religions, the stories of the main actors form the backbone of the faith and act as models of behavior for the faithful.  In a country where a great majority of the population is based on subsistence farming and where health care is not particularly good, the saints and monks who do without are held in great esteem.  One of the saints who is often portrayed in images for sale and in the churches is St. Vervet, who was so engrossed in his chanting that he didn’t realize that the king had stabbed his foot with a spear.  He is often depicted with only one leg as a consequence. Along with images of Mary, Jesus, the four evangelists, the nine Ethiopian saints, St. George, and the archangels Gabriel, Raphael and Michael, the most ubiquitous image in the churches is that of the Trinity. The Father, Son and Holy Ghost are portrayed as the same old man with a long white beard. They are absolutely the same as the monophist doctrine proclaims. There is no separate human nature to Jesus, the Christ is purely divine, even if his tripartite nature is portrayed as human.   As his earthly mother, Mary has a very important place in this Church and many of the places of worship are dedicated to her.  Two medieval monks wrote about her and their works form the basis of much of the Ethiopian Orthodox canon, specifically the Mass of Mary and the Miracles of Mary by St. Ephriam. (A digital copy of this work can be found at the Uni Bonn website: http://digitale-sammlungen.ulb.uni-bonn.de/content/pageview/309270) These saints are often portrayed at the bottom of Mary’s images in the iconography. Ethiopia and Armenia vie for the title of the oldest Christian country, - each of them became Christian in the 4th C - but Ethiopia boasts a longstanding dynastic line stemming from Solomon. Scholars can argue about the authenticity and exact location of the Queen of Sheba (Saba)’s territory, but according to Ethiopian tradition, she ruled over a great kingdom that spanned from Yemen to Nubia and Somaliland, encompassing much, if not all of central and northern modern day Ethiopia.  She had an ancestral palace in Yemen, but was also a fixture in Axum.

The name Axum come from two words, ‘Ak’ means water and ‘sum’ is the chief of water.  The river that once ran through this region has long since been diverted and dried up. The area is a testament to longstanding climatic changes as the once great empire that seems to have had two great periods, that from the Queen of Sheba’s time and then again starting from about the 1st C AD until it fell into steady decline by the 7th C through drought, Muslim invasions and Jewish wars, and finally ceased to be a power base by the 9th C. It is, however, a key site for Ethiopian identity as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the previous monarchy trace their traditions back to the Queen of Sheba. 

Axum lies ca. 2100 m (7,000 ft.) above sea level, which provides for a temperate climate. Around Axum there are 5 archeological sites, although the professionals believe there are 10, with the other five not yet excavated. The first site that is most often visited is that of the ancient stele, which are huge.  The largest, at 33 m, supposedly broke during erection, and lies in pieces across the landscape. It was larger than any of the Egyptian obelisks.  The stele marked the tombs of royalty and each ‘window’ etched into the stone represented the number of tombs under/next to the stele. The circles on the side represent the sun and moon, while the top, that looks Coptic, represents the half moon. Their chief goddess was Venus (Astar) and main god was Sin, who was also a leading god in Abraham’s Ur. They also worshipped Geher, Meder and Mahrim, the  god of water. Traces of the pottery with the remains of incense have been found indicating that frankincense and other scents were offered to the gods long before Balthazar offered some to baby Jesus. In total at the various sites in the area, there are about 75 stele, with three different kinds found in the second stele field across from the Queen of Sheba’s palace.  Among them are: unfinished rough, the smooth, and the engraved/decorated kinds. The granite for the stele was brought, and supposedly rolled, by elephants from the mountains 5 km from the town. All of the stele were erected before the common era.

According to legend (and the Brandt “Ethiopia” guidebook):

the country was first settled by a great-grandson of Noah, called Ethiopic, whose son, Aksumai, established his capital at Axum and founded a ruling dynasty that endured for more than 50 generations. The last of these monarchs, and many say the greatest, was Queen Makeda, who Ethiopians believe was the so-called Queen of Sheba.  It is claimed that Makeda ruled Ethiopia and Yemen for 31 years over the cusp of the 11th-10thC BC, and that she owned a fleet of 73 ships and a caravan of 520 camels that traded with places as far afield as Palestine and India. (10)

According to one of the legends Mekada, the Queen, was a very wise woman who recognized that jewels and material wealth were not as important as wisdom. When she heard that there was a very wise king in Jerusalem, she vowed to visit him.  She loaded up a caravan of treasures and made the long journey over the desert in two years. When she met the Hebrew king, she posed three riddles to test his wisdom; he was naturally able to answer them.  She stayed at the court for awhile and converted to Judaism because of her admiration for Solomon. When she decided she had better go back home and look after her people, Solomon wanted to bed the virgin queen beforehand.  He invited her to dinner and fed her well and plying her with spicey drinks. He said that she should spend the night with him, whereupon she said that she would if he would not force anything on her. He agreed on the condition that she not take anything that is not specifically offered to her.  She laughed and said that she had everything she needed and didn’t need anything from the king, other than the wisdom he had imparted. In the middle of the night, she woke up with a thirst and took a drink of water from the cup standing next to the bed. Solomon sat up and said that she had broken the promise as she took a drink that hadn’t been offered.  She agreed that he had tricked her. When she returned to Ethiopia, the seed of Solomon’s first-born son was within her.  When he was born Mekada named him Menelik, the son of a wise king.  She raised him well, but realized that she could not provide the religious training his father could, so when he was 22 he left for Jerusalem.  His father recognized him at once and began to cultivate his son to be his successor. After a few years, Menelik decided that it would be better to take over his role as his mother’s successor rather than that of his father.  At first Solomon was upset with his son’s decision, but then he had a dream that this was ordained by God, so he instructed the leaders of the 12 tribes to send 1,000 of their people and their first-born sons along with caravans of treasures to accompany Menelik. Azariah, the first-born son of the high priest of the Temple who was designated to be in Menelik’s entourage, had a dream that the Ark of the Covenant should be moved to Ethiopia for safe-keeping as well, so he replaced the Ark with an box similar in shape to the Ark.  When Menelik heard about the deception, he was furious, but then he had a dream that it was God’s will for the Ark to be moved.  Like son, like father, when Solomon found out he was also furious and demanded an army go after his son’s caravan until he too had a dream that it was supposed to be. Solomon knew that there would be horrendous consequences if the people knew the Ark was no longer in the Temple, so he kept quiet about the deception. It seems Solomon was not only wise, but cunning. The Ark was housed in a Lake Tana monastery for centuries, before it moved to Lalibela, then to Axum, where it has been for 800 years cared for by a lone virgin monk, who is the only person allowed to see it.  The building that houses the Ark is relatively small and is surrounded by much larger structures; the Maryam Tsion Church is perhaps oldest church in Ethiopia. It was first built in the 4th C after a Tyrian monk, Frumentius converted King Ezana and his brother, Saizana, to Christianity. It destroyed in the 16thby religious conflict and rebuilt by King Fasilidas in the 17th. Starting with King Ezana’s conversion, the kingdom and the religion were one and the same. All kings were from the line of Solomon and were crowned in Axum in front of the Maryam Tsion Church. It sits behind the “new Marian church” that was built by Haile Selassie, and behind a grassy area in which most of the treasures that have been offered to the Ark are buried.  Construction is underway to build a new museum to house the buried artifacts as well as those in the current small museum. As keepers of the central object within the Jewish faith, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has maintained many of the ancient Hebrew rites, which doesn’t mean that historically Jews have had a easy time in the country. 

Up until about the 10th C., the Jews lived side by side with their Orthodox or Muslim neighbors. In the middle of the 10th C, it seems the Falasha, the Jews, refused to pay tribute to the Christian rulers who had recently moved further south into traditional Falasha territory. That was a mistake. The King ordered that those who didn’t pay up be punished and a battle ensued. The leader of the Falashas died in the process, and according to at least one version of the legend, his daughter, Yodit, otherwise known as Gudit, exacted revenge by pillaging and destroying most of the churches. Another version has her seeking revenge for her Christian husband having cut off her breasts because she refused to convert. What is generally acknowledged is that an African queen was intent on wiping out Christianity and laid to waste Axum and all of the churches in the region in about 960. Legend has it that she made God so angry by her affront that he swept her up in a whirlwind on a hill just outside Wukro.  The people in the Wukro region have long since believed that the hill was haunted; they said that rain would fall everywhere except on that site, and that strange things happened there.  When a new company wanted to build a road from their site below the hill across it to the next village, which would have been the most direct route, the local people protested that that would not work.  In the meantime, an international team of Ethiopian and German archeologists working in the region heard of the controversy and decided to start digging.  They uncovered the southernmost and only the third Sabean temple to the Sabean’s chief god, Almaqah, in the country and dated it to ca. the 8th C BCE.  When they uncovered a seated woman without her head, the locals said that it was a decapitated Yodit, not quite understanding the chronological differences. Normally, the artifacts from this site would land back in Addis Ababa at the National Museum, but the German team made a concerted effort to have a local museum built in Wukro to provide for additional income to the people of the town as well as provide an educational venue for the town’s children.  The small, but excellent, museum opened in 2015.  There are three rooms, only two of which were open when I was there. The first has two generators on display, which directly relates to the history of the town. The first was the original town generator that didn’t work very well.  It was replaced with a better one, but that one was destroyed by the Derg in the Civil War.  German technicians repaired it and along with the smaller one, they provide an interesting contemporary history of electrical power to the region.  The room behind the generators houses artifacts from three much more ancient sites, the one pre-Axumite Sabean site, and two Axumite, ca. 4-6th C CE sites. On display are the original headless woman statue as well as the original libation altar from the Almaqah temple. At the site itself, the team constructed exact replicas of the artifacts on display in the museum and placed them where they were found.  This find is fairly remarkable, as there has not been much archeological activity in Ethiopia; in fact, the first digs were by a German team in 1905 and since then only seven major excavation teams have conducted even somewhat extensive work.  In Axum, which boasts not only the Ark of the Covenant, but also a Queen of Sheba palace and pool as well as two stele fields, relatively little archeological work has taken place.  The site of the Queen’s palace looks to me as if only about 5 %, of what should be there given the topography, uncovered.

There is no way to know precisely which gods were worshipped in what ways in Ethiopian lands prior to the Common Era, but in addition to the site in Wukro, the most important pre-Christian site is that in Yeha.  The Temple to Almaqah is the largest pagan temple in Ethiopia and follows the tradition already alluded to on the stele, that of worship of the sun and moon.  It was probably constructed sometime around 700 BCE. The temple remained standing most likely because it was reused as a church starting in the 6th C CE. This early church, which was constructed recycling materials from the Great Temple, is still functioning as a treasury, while another probably 11th – 12th C church next door is still an active place of worship.  The treasury holds artifacts found at the site as well as a 600 yr old Bible written in Ge’ez and a 300 yr. old Book of Mary, with beautiful paintings inside.

The area around the Great Temple of Yeha was once the center of a major urban site, all of which has long since disappeared, leaving only a few fairly recent pole built residences.  The area should be rich in prospects for budding archeologists, but

beyond the lack of funds for more concerted archeological efforts, there is also the fact that many, if not most, of the potential sites across the country are now used for farming and the ancient churches are still active places of worship.  This is especially true in the Lake Tana region with its 13th-14thC monasteries and churches as well as for the rock-hewn churches in Lalibela.  

 I was only able to visit two Lake Tana churches, Azewa-Mariam and Ura Kidanemihret. but they were spectacular. They are circular structures, representing the alpha and omega and unity of all, with two ambulatories around the Holy of Holies, which is in a large square shaped central room with a circular roof under the main bamboo or eucalyptus wood thatched circular roof. In the middle of the roof there is a cross with seven ostrich eggs on the points indicating the seven miracles of Jesus. The ostrich egg also represents the love and care Christ has for his people; as ostrich parents do not leave their young eggs until they are hatched watching over them day and night, so too does Christ watch over his children.  As this is an Orthodox tradition, there is a separate entrance to the first ambulatory on the south side for women, and on the north for men and west for priests. There are four steps up, representing the evangelists. The outermost ambulatory is for the priests to chant accompanied by drum and sistrum, which they do for hours and hours on end, especially from 6-9am daily, the innermost is reserved for Holy Communion and the offering of the sacraments.  Only monks may enter the Holy of Holies. Priests may marry, deacons may not, but deacons can become priests. As monks remain pure, they are the only ones allowed in the sacred chamber.  There are twelve doors between the two ambulatories representing the Apostles. The ambulatories still had a few paintings from the 16th C, but the Holy of Holies in both Lake Tana churches were covered from floor to ceiling with vivid imagery from both the Old and New Testaments as well as from Ethiopian religious tradition, including the nine Syrian saints (who weren’t all from Syria) who brought Christianity to the country, and images from the Miracles of Mary. The paintings are done with natural dyes on cowhide and hung on the walls. Inscriptions in Ge’ez, the ancient Arhamic sacred script, are still visible under many of the scenes. According to my guides, the paintings have only been restored twice, once in the 13th-14th C and then again in the 16th. If this is true, it is truly remarkable as they are in excellent condition. The Marian images are especially striking, as they are often a mix of late Italian renaissance style and a more indigenous local style. Most of the Marys with Ethiopian features hold baby Jesus on the right side rather than the European left. Another interesting feature is that non-believers are shown in profile while believers are seen in frontal view.

Many of the legends are portrayed on the sides of the Holy of Holies in these churches, for example, that of the Egyptian St. Abo, who made the lions and tigers jealous because of his friendly way with all the animals, so the big cats sent a raven to pluck out his eye.  God, however, was pleased with him, and had St. Michael restore his sight.  Another common theme is that of the story of the man who was greedy and full of pride. He believed he was especially chosen by God. When he heard ‘God’ asking him to sacrifice his son, he thought of Abraham and assumed that a goat would appear and he wouldn’t have to do so. No goat appeared and he killed his son. The voice then told him to cut a piece of the flesh and eat it. He did. Then to devour the rest of the body. He did. Then he was supposed to kill 76 people. He did so. It was the devil who told him to do these things. Then another man asked him in Mary’s name for water. The first man remembered his sins, and gave the man water. When he died, the devil wanted his soul, but Mary wanted to spare him. The two couldn’t come to an agreement so the bad deeds were put on one side of the scales of justice and his good deed on the other. Mary put her finger out over the good side casting a shadow that tipped the scales in her/and his favor. In this tradition, Mary protects all who believe in her.

 The Lake Tana region is filled with churches and monasteries and is a treasure trove of Amharic religious art.  On the other side of the country, to the East, Lalibela hosts very different kinds of worship structures, basilica styled rock-hewn Tigrai churches and cave monasteries. There are five kinds of churches in Ethiopia:

  1. semi-monolithic
  2. monolithic
  3. built up
  4. cave churches
  5. built up over cave churches

Lalibela has three of these: monolithic, semi-monolithic and cave churches.

 The original name for Lalibela was Roha, which means beautiful mountains, which is appropriate for the location.  It was later changed to Lalibela to honor the King who was responsible for many of the rock-hewn churches in the area. He was called Lalibela (swarm of bees) because according to one story, he was born amidst such a swarm, in other stories he was protected as a child by a swarm. He was the first to make Lalibela a capital city in the late 11th early 12th C, and his line started the intermediary Zagwe dynasty. In order to justify their rule, the kings said that Solomon slept not only with Sheba, but with one of her ladies in waiting, who also had a son; the Zagwe’s are descendants of this line, which is still part of the Solomonic tradition.

King Lalibela, according to Ethiopian tradition, went to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage but found the journey very difficult and dangerous for Christians through Muslim territory. When he came back he decided to build a new Jerusalem in his capital so that the people could complete a pilgrimage to the Holy City. He initiated three groups of rock-cut churches, the NE section which represents the earthly new Jerusalem, across a gulley that represents the Jordan river, in the SE section lies heavenly Jerusalem and in the west, St. Georgyis Church.

All the churches are called bet (also spelled bête and beit), which means ‘the house of.’ The NE complex comprises the Bet Medhane Alem, which is the largest rock-hewn church in the world at 11m in height, 23.5 in width and 33.5 in length.  The original columns in the front have been replaced, but those in the back and on the sides are original. The door and windows are in Axumite style and are made from olive tree wood. Bet Maryam is the oldest church in the complex. Bet Meskel is the House of the Cross and is semi-monolithic and Etan Denach (Sp.) is the House of the Virgins (Christ had 12 apostles, 36 Virgin followers, and 76 student followers).

Debre Sina – represents the Ark of the Covenant and has a rock representing Mt. Sinai behind it.  It also has a few very faint frescos. The three kinds of Ethopian crosses, Axumite, Gondar, and Lalibela, are next to the door. From Debre Sina a man may enter Golgotha (women are forbidden to enter as Christ didn’t let Mary Magdelene touch him when she saw him in the garden after the crucifixion). King Lalibela is buried in Golgotha.  There are also the only images of St. Peter and St. Paul inside Golgotha.

St. Georges is the only church on the West side; it cut out of the mountain so that one looks level at the roof, and shaped like a Greek cross. The windows closest to the ground floor are false as they were below water level. The twelve on what appears to be the second floor represent the apostles and let light and air into the dark structure.   While St. Georges is shaped like a cross, the priests always carry and hold a large standard with a cross in the service. There are three types of Ethiopian Orthodox Crosses:

Axumite – which is Greek influenced and has 9 points for the 9 saints

Lalibela – which has 12 points for the 12 apostles and the

Gondar – which is Latin influenced and has 7 points for the 7 miracles.

Regardless of current location, the crosses are all used throughout the country.

One traverses the Jordan (a gully) to get to the SE Heavenly Jerusalem complex with Bet Gabriel and Rafael.  The original tools for constructing the semi-monolithic site the site are kept in a box in the church. The chanting room is outside as the church is quite small.  The Holy of Holies has a dome that is only visible if one tries to move the curtain hiding the sacred area. This church has sustained relatively little damage in comparison to the others in the complex.  As with the others, every architectural detail of the church has a symbolic meaning. Bet Gabriel has some chanting, although there isn’t much space, but the back section, i.e., for Rafael, is too small for other than a few people to stand in.  There used to be bridges going across the moat to the churches, but they were destroyed long ago.  No one knows for certain what the small wells and the steps at the bottom of the moat were intended for, although some historians believe that this was King Lalibela’s palace and not a church during his time, which would make sense given its strategic defensive location.

The region is filled with legends of the churches and one is that when a particular  church was destroyed, it fell into four sections forming a cross.  According to Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, Adam ascended into heaven after 40 days, but Eve required 80.  Boys are now baptized at 40 days old, and girls at 80 days. Near Bet Gabriel and Rafael is the Tomb of Adam.  From there one goes through a dark tunnel, representing Hell to get to Heaven. The other side of the tunnel brings one to

Bet Aba Lebanos, which was dedicated to King Lalibela’s wife and named for one of the nine saints who came from Tyre.

 Outside of town, I visited two sacred sites Yemerehne Kirstos, a cave church and  ‘palace’  and the Asheten Mariam Monastery.  The Yemerehne Kristos complex structures are built in a large cave that was originally filled with water.  Chanting needs to be done within the cave, but outside the church for space reasons. The short hike up is lined with beautiful fig trees and one can make a loop to go back to the van pickup point rather than doing an in and out, which one needs to do for the Asheten Mariam Monastery. The Asheten Mariam Monastery is named for the good incense smell emanating from the area. Frankincense is the main scent in this region as it is believed Balthazar was Ethiopian. The monastery is situated at 3.128 m above sea level, and houses a number of ‘treasures’, including 300-400 year old icons, painting books, and old Stories of Mary with beautiful images of her in both European and Abyssinian styles.  The monastery is still active and has resident monks. There are two kinds of monks: those who choose to remain celibate for life and those who were married, but whose wife died.  If they remarry a second time, they can no longer be a priest much less a monk.  Women can become nuns under the same conditions.

The son of King Lalibela didn’t built churches, but his nephew did, including Asheten Mariam Monastery on the mountain outside of town.  After Lalibela’s son ruled for 16 years he gave the lineage back to the Solomonic dynasty and the capital soon moved to Gondar.

To my mind, one of the most remarkable kings of the Gondar period was Yohannes II, who in addition to being a scholar, is also associated with the legend of Prester John, the king of an unknown Christian empire that many seekers sought to find. Some said it was in Central Asia, but in Ethiopia, I heard it was Yohannes II’s Gondar kingdom.  Gondar’s claim to tourist fame is the palace complex, but for me the Debre Birham Selassie Church was the highlight of this city.

The Debre Birham Selassie Church (Holy Light on the Small Hill) was sponsored by King Easu in 1682 after the first Amharic styled church burned down through lightning, supposedly because an impure woman came in to pray, so God was upset by her actions…. (why are women always to blame???!) In the 17th C there were 44 churches in Gondar, but the Muslim invaders destroyed all but this one that was protected by a swarm of bees. (Bees seem to save the chosen in many of the Ethiopian stories and honey is still one of the main exports.) The Sudanese invaders didn’t stick around, they burnt all the sacred sites except Debre Birham Selassie, then left; they didn’t stay to rule as they did in India. 

At Debre Birham Selassie, there are twelve towers on the outer wall, representing the 12 apostles. The Main Gate represents the Lion of Judah and his tail is at a gate a distance away.  The towers served as prayer rooms for the nuns and monks. The nuns worshipped on the right side of the church, the monks on the left.  The church is still active. The most often pictured image from this church is that of the ceiling with the display of a multitude of painted angels. The walls of this basilica shaped church are covered floor to ceiling with painted scenes from sacred Ethiopian stories and legends.

 Ethiopian Orthodox painting is said to have begun with a Syrian monk in the 6th C. The paintings in Lake Tana are supposed to be in this original style.

By the 16th C the first Gondar artistic period arose, which has simple lines without excessive ornamentation and less representational features.  The second Gondar period came about 50 years later and is much more detailed. Both portray the same images: saints, Mary, Jesus, archangels and the Holy Trinity but the techniques are different.  The Debre Birham Selassie Church’s walls are examples of the second Gondar style.

The Ethiopian Church was aligned with the Egyptian Coptic Church and had their patriarchs come from Egypt until 1959.  (Wiki) “It is the largest pre-colonial Christian church in Africa.”

 As in European Christian churches, there are many different kinds of mass, but in the Ethiopian church one is supposed to stand throughout. The morning mass, when it is not fasting time, lasts about 1-3 hours depending on the occasion. The afternoon/evening mass is celebrated during fasting time (which as previously mentioned is about half the year) lasts about 2-2 ½ hours, which is why the people keep their prayer staffs with them; they help support the worshipper through the service. Distractions are naturally not permitted, and men and women are segregated to separate sections.

 The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has many more books that the Romans or Protestants, including books for Mary, Gabriel, Raphael, and the Archangel Michael. The calendar is also different as the Ethiopian Church remained on the Julian calendar, thereby celebrating Christmas on Dec. 29th rather than the 25th.

 The guides and priests I spoke with made it very clear that their church was not affiliated with the Egyptian Coptic Church, but was a separate entity altogether. Officially, the Ethiopian Church was aligned with the Egyptian Coptic Church and had their patriarchs come from Egypt until 1959.  (Wiki) “It is the largest pre-colonial Christian church in Africa.” Ethiopians insist they maintain separate sacred traditions as well as artistic styles to other Christian denominations.

Ethiopia is a primarily Christian country, but it is also home to the fourth most sacred Islamic city, Harar.  Harar is preceded in importance only by Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.  It is considered a city of peace, solidarity and tolerance because they say that Christians and Muslims live together without strife and a mosque and a church are in close proximity to one another. Nonetheless, within the walls of the old city, I saw more burqas than I had seen anywhere else.  When I asked about this, I was told that this had to do with the Saudis sponsoring the increase in mosques I had witnessed in my travels across the country and that even the Muslims in Harar and elsewhere were not in favor of this increase in fundamentalism as it threatens the city’s identity of solidarity and tolerance. 

It will be interesting to watch the evolving religious landscape in Ethiopia as the country is in the midst of a number of far-reaching transitions.  The Chinese are building factories and industries throughout the country, not just in the cities, but in small towns as well, and the Saudis are building mosques everywhere.  The local people are rebuilding their pole – mud houses along with circular Amharic styled and Lalibela basilica styled churches.  What will remain in ten years is anyone’s guess.

 

 

 

 

 

Tags: sacred sites

 

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