Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia: Welcome to Jerusalem, Africa

By Erich Wiedemann

Ethiopia's Orthodox Christians are among the oldest Christian communities in the world. Their hymns and prayers have been preserved and passed down over the ages. But with its numerous religious holidays, the Christian tradition also worsens the country's grinding poverty.

From the air, Lalibela looks like any other village. An ocean of corrugated iron huts, shrouded by thin columns of smoke that condense into a bluish haze below the rocky plateau. It's a familiar sight all across Ethiopia.

But Lalibela isn't just another village. It's the capital of Ethiopia's Christians, their "holy place," their "wonder of the world." And nowhere else is this clearer than at Bet Gyiorgis, the Church of St. George. The monumental structure - chiseled out of the rocks on the town's western fringes - is some 800 years old. Built in the form of a cross, it is ringed by a dry moat that helps set it apart from the 10 other rock churches, all of which are interconnected by subterranean tunnels.

The interior is dimly lit with beef-tallow lamps. A little daylight filters through the narrow windows. The smell of incense hangs in the air. Elderly, bearded men in white robes are seated along the walls, reading handwritten bibles.

A pious murmuring resounds throughout the church, softly punctuated by harp music teased by a boy from his bagana - a wooden string instrument embellished with gleaming brass plates.

Some 40 percent of the 68 million Ethiopians are Orthodox Christians. Their faith and traditions hark back some 1,600 years. According to the legend, their church was established as the unintended consequence of a kidnapping. Two Christians named Frumentios and Aidesios - both residents of Tyre - were accosted on the Red Sea and abducted to Aksum, Ethiopia's capital at the time. Being educated people, they were soon installed as private tutors to the royal family. They not only taught the king's children mathematics and Greek, but imparted the fundamentals of their Christian faith as well.

Contemporary of Genghis Khan

And they were evidently persuasive. In the middle of the 4th century, King Ezana decided to become baptized. Just a few years later Christianity was proclaimed the state religion. Despite this, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was headed for centuries by a metropolitan who was appointed by the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria. It wasn't until the middle of the past century that the Ethiopian church became autonomous and appointed its own patriarch in Addis Ababa. Alongside the 17 eparchies in Ethiopia, bishoprics in Nubia and in Jerusalem now fall under his aegis.

The churches in Lalibela were built by a king of the same name - a contemporary of Genghis Khan and Barbarossa. He wanted to create a new Jerusalem, which Saladin reclaimed from the crusaders in 1187; denied access to the Holy Land, pilgrims from Ethiopia and the small Christian states along the Nile would be able to worship there. The stream bubbling past the city was christened the Jordan, and the hill overlooking it Mount Tabor.

For centuries, Islamic conquests in neighboring regions isolated Ethiopia from the Christian world. Nevertheless, its Christian heritage - the prayers, the hymns and the liturgical language Ge'ez - was successfully preserved for centuries.

The full glory of the Orthodox Eucharist is tangible in the churches of Lalibela, above all during the Timkat Festival which commemorates Christ's baptism in the Jordan. On the eve of the event, underground processions wend their way to and through the churches, accompanied by the sound of bells and horns. Priests and deacons cloaked in beaded, darkhued velvet lead the way. On their heads they bear tabots, wooden tablets symbolizing the Ark of the Covenant.

These are then placed in a large tent, outside which the faithful congregate, waiting the entire night to embrace the holy powers they believe invested in the tabots.

The ritual is no less solemn or impressive than the anointing of a cardinal in the Vatican. The priest raps out a cadence on the ground with his mighty staff and sings out: "Kyrie eleison." The faithful cast themselves to the ground 30, 40 or even 50 times.

However, these time-honored traditions and their enforced observance by the church are partly to blame for Ethiopia's plunge into bitter poverty over the past 50 years. How can a country possibly be self-sustaining if its people are prevented from tilling their fields every other day?

Adopted numerous Jewish customs

The Orthodox calendar lists more than 150 holidays and 180 days of fasting, on which Christians are banned from working and limited to one meal. Holidays for Muslims - some 45 percent of Ethiopians - eat even further into the working week. And the Sabbath is still celebrated in rural areas - a relic of the Salomonic dynasty which ruled Ethiopia from the 13th century and adopted numerous Jewish customs.

The clergy in Addis Ababa, the country's capital since the end of the 19th century, may be slowly losing its authority, but the priests in the highlands enforce the holidays with an iron fist. Punishment inexorably follows any failure to comply. Not to mention the prospect of ending up in hell.

Moreover, the church still defines the calendar. The Ethiopian year has 12 months lasting 30 days, each plus five or six additional days. The patriarchy refuses to countenance change. The government has sought to adopt the modern Western calendar on several occasions, only to be stymied by the clergy. In practice, the separation of church and state has yet to be implemented.

Christianity is also responsible for another phenomenon in Ethiopia: racial arrogance. Viewing their faith as superior to Africa's natural religions, Orthodox Christians regard themselves as a chosen people. In their minds, the portrayal - in the illustrations of the sacred books - of lighter-skinned people as the rulers of the Promised Land and the blacks as their servants is evidence of God's will.

Mediterranean-style civilization

Although the Organization for African Unity maintained its headquarters in Addis Ababa for decades and the African Union is now based there, Ethiopians do not see themselves as Africans. According to the Munich-based ethnologist Walter Raunig, Ethiopia is one of the "last remaining southern outposts of Mediterranean-style civilization."

The Rastafarians from Shashemene, a small city 150 miles south of the capital, have escaped this discrimination; despite their color, they enjoy the full respect of the Christians. The Rastafarians established their colony in the 1960s, and some members later joined Ethiopia's Orthodox Christian community. Their name is derived from the birth name of the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie: Ras Tafari Makonnen. They revered him as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

At the beginning of 2005, Rita Marley, the widow of legendary Reggae star Bob Marley, announced she was having her deceased husband's body transferred from Jamaica to Shashemene on the 60th anniversary of his birth. But she was forced to abandon her plans: Jamaica refused to release the mortal remains of its national hero.

Nevertheless, the singer's spirit had dwelt among them on his 60th birthday, according to Ethiopia's Rastafarians. On February 6, 2005, Marley's "Buffalo Soldier" could be heard in the streets of Shashemene: "Stolen from Africa, brought to America, fighting on arrival, fighting for survival - Woy yoy yoy!"

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