Fr Jose Thomas Poovathumkal
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church is one of the six Oriental Orthodox Churches, characterized by the rejection of the Council of Chalcedon (451). The history of Ethiopian Orthodox Church is, also, the history of Ethiopia. Hence one who studies the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church should feel as he is studying Ethiopian history and vice versa. In every event, process or activity of the country, Ethiopian Orthodox Church has been participated actively.
Ethiopia, officially the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, is a rugged country of tall mountains and arid deserts. Ethiopia has a diverse population, with more than 70 distinct ethnic and linguistic groups. The word Ethiopia is derived from the Greek αιθ (to burn) and οψ (face), which means the country of men with burnt face. The ancient Greek used to refer to Ethiopia as the country of burnt faced men to mean brown coloured people. It is to show that Ethiopians are neither pure black nor pure white, but they are intermediate in colour.
The ancient name of Ethiopia was Cush. The name is mentioned 27 times in the Old Testament. According to Kebra Negast, a 13th century document, written in Ge'ez by Nebure Id Yishaq, the early inhabitants of Ethiopia (Cush) were Biblical personages. Cush was begotten by Ham, son of Noah (Gen.10:6). It was from Ethiopia that Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, journeyed to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem and there, according to the First book of Kings, "talked with him about all that she had on her mind." In return, "King Solomon gave the Queen of Sheba all she desired and asked for, besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty" (1 Kings 10:1-13). The Gospel of St. Matthew in the New Testament similarly records how the Ethiopian Queen "came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom..." (Matt. 12: 42). Kebra Negast further has it that a son was born to the Queen from her union with Solomon. This son was Menelik, the founder of Solomonic Dynasty, grew up in Ethiopia ("Menelik" means "the son of the wise man"). Emperor Haile Selassie, the last monarch of Ethiopia, was the 237th successor of Solomonic Dynasty.
According to Kebra Negast, the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Ethiopia in the time of King Solomon. Presently it is kept in the sanctuary of the chapel annexed to the church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum, the sacred city of Ethiopians.
In the Kebra Negast, it is stated that the Queen of Sheba brought Judaism to Ethiopia and from that time on it became the official religion of the country until Christianity took its place. In addition, more than twelve thousand people accompanied Menelik to Ethiopia. They mixed and coexisted with the Ethiopians. The Sabbath began to be observed, the flesh of animals that are not permitted by the Old Testament was no longer eaten, male circumcision on the eight day was introduced and the Ark became the centre of worship.
Even after the introduction of Christianity these practices have been still maintained in Ethiopia. The Ark was duplicated (tabot) and found in every church throughout Ethiopia. In order to observe the Saturday as Sabbath, many of the Christians in the rural areas especially of the northern Ethiopia do not go out to collect firewood or fetch water and do not even travel on Saturday. Unofficially Saturday is holiday for Ethiopians. Christians practice male circumcision after the birth and food rules are still observed according to the rules of the Old Testament.
The native Jews are known as Falashas or Black Jews. They refer themselves as "Beta Israel" (House of Israel) and consider the name Falashas a derogatory term. The center of Beta Israel religious life is the masjid, or synagogue. The chief functionary in each village is the high priest, who is assisted by lower priests. Monks live alone or in monasteries, isolated from other people. There are no rabbis in the sect. Until the mid-1980s Ethiopian Jews lived either in separate villages or in separate quarters in Christian or Islamic towns, in the region of Ethiopia north of Lake T’ana. They were skilled in agriculture, masonry, pottery, iron working, and weaving. Under Haile Selassie I, a few of them rose to positions of prominence in education and government, but reports of persecution followed the emperor's ouster in 1974. More than 12,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel from late 1984 to early 1985, when the Ethiopian government halted the program. The airlift resumed in 1989, and about 3,500 Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel in 1990. Nearly all of the Jews remaining in Ethiopia were evacuated by the Israeli government in May 1991.
4. CHURCH OF ETHIOPIA
Christianity had been known in Ethiopia since a much earlier time. However, it became the official religion of the Axumite Kingdom in the 4th century. There are various points of view about the introduction of Christianity to Ethiopia.
a. The presence of Ethiopians on the day of Pentecost
Acts 2:8-11 never mentioned that the Ethiopians were present on the day of Pentecost. However, in his Homily on Pentecost, St. John Chrysostom mentioned that the Ethiopians were present in the Holy City on the day of Pentecost. It seems that St. Luke did not mention them only because they were few in number. Those few people might have introduced Christianity is the very crucial point. Moreover, from the early period, Ethiopian pilgrims went annually to Jerusalem where there is an Ethiopian monastery built a long time ago on the land which, it is said, was presented by King Solomon to the Queen of Sheba on the occasion of her visit to Jerusalem. This monastery was known as "Deir Sultan" meaning "the fief of a ruler." Presently, the Ethiopian Church maintains its ancient link with Jerusalem by keeping a bishop there. In Jerusalem, the Ethiopian chapel stands on the roof of the church of the Holy Sepulchre.
b. The Conversion of the Eunuch
The introduction of Christianity into Ethiopia began by the conversion of the Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). He was the treasurer of Queen Candace of Ethiopia who ruled Ethiopia from 42 to 52 AD. The Eunuch once went Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel. While the Eunuch was returning he met Philip and was baptized by him. Ethiopian tradition asserts that the Eunuch returned home and evangelised the people. To support this view point Eusebius, the 4th century Church historian singles out Candace's treasurer as the first gentile convert to Christianity. But Eusebius consideration of the Eunuch as gentile contradicts with the Ethiopian background of Judaism before Christianity. Eusebius view has not cleared yet.
c. St. Matthew the Apostle and Ethiopia
There is another story about the introduction of Christianity into Ethiopia. It is said that St. Matthew preached Gospel in Ethiopia and became a martyr. According to Rufinius when the Apostles drew lots to preach the Gospel to the pagans, Matthias drew Persia and Matthew Ethiopia.
d. Frumentius and Aedesius
Even though many stories survive in Ethiopia about the conversion, Orthodox Christianity became the established Church of the Ethiopian Axumite Kingdom under king Ezana in the 4th century through the efforts of Frumentius. Some details of this Christianization are found in the works of Rufinus, Theodoretus of Cyrus, Socrates and Sozomenus.
The historian Rufinus of Aquila (+410), in his "Ecclesiastical History" (I,IX), tells us about King Ezana's conversion. Apparently a certain Meropius, a Christian merchant described by Rufinius as a "philosopher of Tyre", once made a voyage to India, taking with him two Syrian boys whom he was educating in "human studies". The elder was called Frumentius and the younger Aedesius. On their return journey through the Red Sea the ship was seized off the Ethiopian cost in an act of reprisal against the Eastern Roman Empire, which had broken a treaty with the people of the area.
Meropius was killed in the fighting. The boys, however survived and were taken to the Axumite King, Ella Amida, who promptly made Aedesius his cup-bearer and Frumentius -- the more sagacious and prudent of the two -- his treasurer and secretary. The boys were held in great honour and affection by the king who, however, died shortly afterwards leaving his widow and an infant son -- Ezana -- as his heir. Before his death, Ella Amida had given the two Syrians their freedom but now the widowed queen begged them, with tears in her eyes, to stay with her until her son came of age. She asked in particular for the help of Frumentius -- for Aedesius, though loyal and honest at heart, was simple.
During the years that followed, the influence of Frumentius in the Axumite kingdom grew. He sought out such foreign traders who were Christians and urged them "to establish conventiclers in various places to which they might resort for prayer." He also provided them with "whatever was needed, supplying sites for buildings and in every way promoting the growth of the seed of Christianity in the country."
At around the time that Ezana finally ascended the throne, Aedesius returned to Tyre. Frumentius for his part journeyed to Alexandria, in Egypt, where he informed Patriarch Athanasius of the work so far accomplished for the faith in Ethiopia. The young man begged the ecclesiastical leader "to look for some worthy man to send as bishop over the many Christians already congregated." Athanasius, having carefully weighed and considered the words of Frumentius, declared in a council of priests: "What other man shall we find in whom the spirit of God is as in thee who can accomplish these things?" He therefore "consecrated him bade him return in the Grace of God whence he came."
Frumentius accordingly went back to Axum as Ethiopia's first bishop (328 AD) and there he continued his missionary endeavours -- which were rewarded, in the year AD 331, by the conversion of the king himself. The first archeological documents, which witnesses to Ezana's conversion are coins and royal inscriptions. The most ancient coins show disk and crescent; later ones, crosses. The most ancient known royal inscription, in Greek, was copied in Adulis (ancient sea port of Ethiopia) in the 6th century by Cosmos Indicopleustes in his "Christian Topography." Inscriptions of the 4th and 6th centuries are found in three languages: Greek, Pseudo-Sabean and Geez. One, which includes the name of Ezana king of Axum, refers to the "Lord of Heaven and Earth." Another inscription, with the words " Son of the unvanquished Ares", shows that the king was still a pagan at the time of its production. In a Greek inscription, found in Axum in 1969 and translated by the French Scholars Caquot and Nautin, Ezana clearly calls himself "the servant of Christ." In Axum one can also see some Axumite ruins between the modern Church of St. Mary of Zion and the little chapel in which what Ethiopians believe to be the original Ark of the Covenant is kept. Downstairs, in the treasury, ancient royal crowns, crosses and other church objects are to be found.
After expelling Athanasius and installing the Arian Bishop, George of Cappadocia in his place, Constantius (337-361) sent a letter by the hand of a priest called Theophilus to Ezana requesting to send Frumentius to Alexandria to be examined in his faith. The aim of the letter was to deprive the Orthodoxy any support and ensure international recognition of Arianism. The request was rejected by the king and Frumentius remained in Axum and continued the teaching which he had learnt from Athanasius. The first Ecumenical Council, where Arius was condemned as a heretic took place in 325 AD shortly before the establishment of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, but the decision of the council was nevertheless regarded as binding and Ethiopia stood by Athanasius, and the Nicene Faith.
Frumentius has contributed and played magnificent roles in upgrading Ethiopia in religious matters. He developed the order of Holy Ordination and Holy Communion. He ordained deacons and priests to spread evangelization throughout the Empire. He translated books from Syriac, Hebrew and Greek to Geez, the liturgical language of Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He rearranged the Sabean letters and created new way of writing from left to right.
Frumentius was attributed names like Abba Selama (Father of Peace) and Kessate Berhan (Revealer of Light) and which shows that the people who first received Christianity had been impressed by the work of Frumentius. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church canonizes him as a saint. The Church celebrates his feast on 26th Hamle (August 2). A monastery named after him (Abba Selama) exists in Tenbien, near Abyee Addi in Tigray region, where he was buried. At a place called Mai Guagua, near Axum, a Church is dedicated to Abba Selama. There is also a church named after him in a place called Abba Selama near the town of Quiha to the west of Makalle. In addition, a theological high school now developed into a theological college dedicated to him in Makelle, Tigray region.
e. The Nine Saints
According to the chronological list of the Ethiopian bishops, Frumentius was succeeded by the Bishop Minas, an Egyptian. Minas left certain literary works concerning his missionary activities, but the major contribution in the missionary field was that of the Nine Saints. Their activities are regarded as the "Second Evangelization" of the country. The company of Nine Saints consists of Abba Aregawi (Zemikael), Abba Tsahma, Abba Gerima (Isaac), Abba Alef, Abba Gubba, Abba Aftsie, Abba Likanos Yamaata and Abba Pateleon. They came from different parts of the Eastern Roman Empire such as Constantinople and Syria during the persecution of the Byzantine Emperor after the Council of Chalcedon (451). Around the year 480 AD they came to Axum and were warmly received by the King Ella Amida, grandfather of King Kaleb. Before their coming to Ethiopia, the Nine Saints went to Egypt and lived some years in the monastery founded by St. Pachomius. They introduced monastic life to Ethiopia. The Nine Saints studied Geez and they became familiar with the customs of the people. The first dwelling place of them is found West of Debre Ela called "Bete Ketin." Then they set out in different directions to evangelise and to introduce monastic life.
f. Sixth to Fifteenth centuries
In the 6th century, Cosmos Indicopleustes writes that Ethiopia was thoroughly Christianised. The most famous Axumite King of the 6th century is Kaleb. On a hill 2km outside of Axum, one can see remains of the so-called tomb of King Kaleb and his son Gebre Meskel. The place was excavated in 1973/4 by a British mission headed by Neville Chittick.
Kaleb also known as Ella Atsbeha, is famous because of his expedition in southern Arabia. There was a presence of Axumites at least from 3rd century AD. In the 6th century king Dhu Nuwas of Himayar (present Yemen), also known as Yusuf (521-525), was converted to Judaism and began to persecute the Christians in Najran (present southern Soudi Arabia), killing them and burning churches. Responding to the request of Emperor Justin I (518-527) of Byzantium, King Kaleb, supported by a Byzantine fleet, went to help Christians with two expeditions in 523 and 525.
Ethiopian garrisons were settled in Zafar (south of present Sana), the capital of the Kingdom of Himyar and in Marib (east of present Sana), in the Kingdom of Sheba, and churches were apparently built or rebuilt. The Axumite general, Abreha, appointed as vice regent, is said to have ordered the construction of a cathedral in Sana (present capital of Yemen). At the end of 6th century, the Persians captured Arabia and the Ethiopians had to withdraw from Southern Arabia.
It was during this time that Holy Books from Greek and other ancient and advanced languages were translated to the national language Geez, monastic life was established and churches were organized as the most important centres of worship. It was also during this time that the well-known Church musician and man of literature, Yared, composed and performed his major works, which still characterise the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
In the 7th century, Mohammedan Arabs overran North Africa and part of the Middle East. As a result, Islam expanded to the areas of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean weakening the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and obstructing ite relation with the rest of the Christian world. Again in 9th century the Falasha Queen Yodit (Gudit) who rose against Christianity ransacked the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, destroying life and property of great religious and historical heritage. From the 10th to the 12th century, Islam began to penetrate further inland: north into the Beja area, south into the Sidama country, in Eastern Shoa (Ifat Sultanate), at Harar, and later near Lake Zway.
In the first half of the 12th century, in Lasta (south of Axum), in the centre of the Ethiopian plateau, a new dynasty, the Zagwe (1137-1270), of Agaw origin, expanded. They founded a capital at Roha, better known as Lalibela, after the name of its greatest king reigned at the end of the 12th/beginning of 13th centuries. King Lalibela had a vision which pushed him to build a "new Jerusalem." During his reign remarkable churches were hewn from the rock, below ground level; twelve churches were carved and ringed by trenches, tunnels and courtyards. Near Lalibela two churches are particularly well known: the monolith of Genneta Maryam, "the Pradise of Mary" (13th century) and a cave church (12th century) named after the holy king Yemrehanna Krestos, meaning "may Christ show us the way" (1140-1180), where his tomb can be seen.
The Zagwe were overthrown in 1270 by Yekuno Amlak (1270-1285) who established a kingdom comprising of Amhara (present Wollo) and the Christian communities of Shoa. He is considered in Ethiopian tradition to have restored the so-called "Solomonic Dynasty" that of the descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, through their son Menelik. Yekuno Amlak improved administration and inaugurated a cultural revival.
In the middle of the 14th century, the Coptic bishop Salama arrived in Ethiopia and reinforced the Church through evangelisation and translations. Bishop Yaqub had already recognized evangelisation in the first half of the 14th century. Moreover, King Yeshaq in the fifteenth century tried to evangelise the Black Jews, Falashas. When one of the greatest Ethiopian ruler, Zara Yaqob, came to power (1414-1429), he made religious reforms and centralized the government again. He was helped by two Egyptian bishops, Mikael and Gabriel.
g. Jesuit interim
Under king Lebna Dengal (1508-1540), Muslims occupied the Christian highlands, under the command of Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al Gazi of the Sultanate of Adal, nicknamed Gragn (the left-handed). Many churches and monasteries were burnt. Gragn's troop ravaged the country from 1527 until 1543, when he was killed and his troops were pushed back. The Portuguese had been asked for help and arrived when Galawdewos was king (1540-1559) in 1541, under the command of the son of Vasco da Gama. This was an age of destruction and social turmoil unknown in the history of Ethiopian Church and was also remembered as the period of martyrs.
During the period of war, some Jesuit missionaries also came to Ethiopia along with the Portuguese soldiers. They tried to proselytise the Ethiopian Christians. One of the Jesuit missionaries, Joao Bermudez, claimed to be the head of the Ethiopian Church. His claim was rejected. He was followed by Andrea de Oviedo (1557). To mark and explain his opposition, King Galawdewos composed a "Confession" defending his faith and the rules of his Church. The Jesuit Pedro Paez arrived in 1603 and was replaced by Almeida (1624) and by Mendez. King Suseneyos (1607-1632) was converted to the Roman Catholic faith, but he was forced by his people to abdicate in 1632. In 1663 his son Fasiladas (1632-1667) expelled the Jesuits, because of their proselitism. Due to the religious conflict created between Ethiopian Christians and Jesuit missionaries, the country was thrown into another period of bloodbath and suffering.
h. Church of Ethiopia after Jesuits
The second half of the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries were times when any recognized central government was totally absent. This particular time called "Zemene Mesafint" (the time of the Chieftains) lasted for seventy years. During this time, however, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, having gone through many ups and downs was able to make a significant progress in the following fields.
· Schools as centres of Qene (Poetry) and writings were developed
· Commentaries on the Holy Scriptures were developed
· Schools of Church music were introduced and developed
The development of Ethiopia as well as the Church was continued until the assassination of the Emperor Haile Selassie by the military government in 1974.
i. Persecution of Derg
From 1974 until 1991, the military government, known as Derg (committee) took power, followed the stricter Marxist-Leninist principles. They, under the leadership of Mengistu Haile Mariam, nationalised the properties of the Church. In 1976, Patriarch Abuna Theolophilus was arrested, detained without trial, and eventually executed. Other archbishops and clergy were imprisoned including the present Patriarch Abune Paulos. The years 1977-78 were bloodstained ones. In 1991, the Communist period was at an end: Mengistu fled abroad, and the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came into power and the Church got her freedom.
5. ORGANIZATION OF THE CHURCH
From the time of St. Athanasius ordained Frumentius as the first bishop of Ethiopia in the 4th century, a connection was made with the Coptic Church. Until the 20th century, the Ethiopian Church remained directly connected with the Coptic Patriarchate who used to send an Coptic Bishop, known in Ethiopia as Abuna, to look after the Ethiopian faithful. The Coptic Abuna was largely responsible for ordinations and theological issues. The abbot or hegumen of the monastery of Debre Libanos in Shoa, called "Etcheuge", was responsible for administration and the properties of the Church. Today the Patriarch of Ethiopian Orthodox Church has the title of Archbishop of Axum and Etcheuge of the see of Saint Tekelehaimanot.
At the death of the 108th Coptic Metropolitan Atenatewos in 1876, Emperor Yohannes IV (1872-1889) asked the Coptic Patriarch Kirilos V (1875-1927), to have four bishops instead of one. The Coptic Synod agreed in 1881 and the Bishops were sent to Ethiopia, with Abuna Petros IV as Metropolitan, who was replaced in 1889 by Abuna Matewos (+1926). In 1929, under the Coptic Patriarch Yohannes XIX, five Ethiopians were consecrated as the first Ethiopian Bishops, with the Coptic Archbishop Kirilos III (+1950) at their head. Other agreements were made in 1948 and completed in 1951, when the Etcheuge (Gebre Giyorgis) became Archbishop under the name Baselius I. This stage was followed in 1959, under the Coptic Patriarch Kirilos VI, by the consecration of Baselius as the first Ethiopian Patriarch. It was the beginning of the Autocephaly of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
The second Ethiopian Patriarch, Abuna Theophilus, was consecrated in 1970, but the Marxist regime deposed him in February 1976, and he stayed in prison until 1979, when he was killed. In 1976, he was replaced by a monk of the Sodo monastery, appointed as Patriarch under the name of Tekelehaimanot (1976-88). After his death in 1988, he was replaced, by Abuna Marqorewos. Since 1992, Abuna Paulos, a monk of the Debre Garima Monastery (Tigray), has been the fifth Patriarch.
b. Present Statistics
According to the statistics of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, there are in Ethiopia more than 50 million members (including diaspora); over 40,000 local parish churches and other churches: higher churches (debre), rural churches (getar) and monasteries (gedam); about 4,00,000 clergy (deacons and priests), teachers, cantors (debteras) and lay church workers. In 2001, the Church was divided into thirty-eight dioceses, and divided again into districts. Currently, there are fifty-six bishops who were members of the Synod of the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia.