The Ethiopian Faith

See photo: Church of Saint Mary of Zion, Askum

According to legend, the spread of Christianity in Ethiopia started with a shipwreck near the country’s coast that Saint Frumentius survived. At the beginning of the 4th century he was able to convert the King to Christianity, and in the year 330 the King proclaimed Christianity to be the state religion.

Over time the history of Christianity in Ethiopia has been quite dramatic. In the second half of the 5th century the “Nine Saints" arrived, and Christians who did not accept the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon regarding the dual nature of Christ were persecuted, even in their own countries.

The Nine Saints were responsible for the translation of the Bible into Ethiopian. Nevertheless, until the 20th century the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was administered by the Coptic Orthodox Church. The first Ethiopian patriarch was only named in 1959. With regard to this new independence, the Ethiopian Church owes a great deal to the last emperor of Ethiopia crowned as Haile Selassie (Power of the Trinity). Curiously, his name before the coronation was Ras Tafari, which is the origin of the name of the Jamaican Rastafarian movement that emerged from the Ethiopian immigrants on the island, known today for its reggae music.

In fact, Bob Marley, the world famous musician, was baptized into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church shortly before his death. He wanted to spend his final days in Jerusalem, but his illness stopped him from going. Despite undergoing intensive medical treatment, Bob Marley died in hospital on May 11th, 1981. His final words to his son were: “Money can’t buy life”. His burial was conducted according to the laws of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Rastafarian traditions. He was buried with his Gibson Les Paul guitar, a football, a marihuana bud, the Bible, and a ring he never took off (a gift from an Ethiopian prince, the oldest son of Haile Selassie I).

Ethiopia is mentioned in the Old Testament as the country of the Queen of Sheba, who went to Jerusalem to test King Solomon’s wisdom with riddles. When he solved all of them she gave him generous gifts, and he gave her "everything she asked for and desired". This story was later embellished with numerous legends about the love affair between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. According to one of these stories, her sons founded the first dynasty of the Ethiopian royal family known as the House of Solomon. The emperor Haile Selassie was the last member of the family to rule.

Another ancient legend relating to Ethiopia says that it is within the country’s territory, in the Temple of Our Lady of Sion, that one of the most important religious relics of Christianity is contained: The Ark of the Covenant (a chest with the stone tablets that the Ten Commandments were inscribed upon). Clearly, no one has ever seen the Ark, but the altarpieces of the Ethiopian temples show the tablets and wooden boxes that symbolize the Ark of the Covenant. They are taken from the temples the day before Epiphany, and they are returned the following day. This novel tradition is accompanied by songs, dances, and celebration of the faithful.  On the other hand, some Ethiopian Christian customs arose under the influence of Judaism. For example, they practice circumcision and keep the Sabbath on both Saturday and Sunday. The Ethiopian Church adopted local customs as well including dabtara, a clerical ceremony that consists of singing sacred hymns and interpreting ritual dances done to the sound of drums.

In the 12th century Saladin, conqueror of the Crusaders, ceded a chapel of the Temple of the Holy Sepulchre to the Ethiopian Christians when he took Jerusalem. It is said that he believed the King of Ethiopia was capable of enchanting the Nile River so that is waters would change direction. This would have left Egypt without its principle source of water, thus the wise King Saladin decided to gratify the Ethiopians. Later, the Ethiopian Christians received several other areas of the Temple of the Holy Sepulchre, although today they are only in possession of the Church of the Four Apocalyptic Elements—the lion, the eagle, the calf, and the man (or angel), as well as the monastery on the roof of the Church of Saint Helena. The Ethiopian Christians believe that it was in exactly that place that the encounter between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba took place.