A history of Ethiopia's Church
examines the historical development of Christianity in Ethiopia and its relationship with Egypt's Coptic Church
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King Solomon and Makeda, famous as the Queen of Sheba; and their descendant Haile Selassie with the late Pope Kirolos VI; Pope Athanasius
Axum, Abyssinia and Ethiopia are all names associated with the mighty kingdom that arose in the Horn of Africa more than three millennia ago, and which has had a far-reaching influence outside its borders.
References to the fabulously rich kingdom, and perhaps its satellite states, can be found in temple hieroglyphics in Egypt as well as in Biblical and Quranic references.
In one of the earliest encounters with Ethiopia, Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt sent a commercial mission to the Land of Punt, a part of ancient Ethiopia, believed to be today's Somalia.
The king of Punt sent the emissaries back to Egypt with exotic animals, incense, ebony, ivory and precious stones, all duly noted on the walls of Deir Al-Bahari in Luxor.
History becomes less clear when the Queen of Sheba comes into the picture. The woman who has travelled to Jerusalem and consorted with King Solomon may have originated from Yemen, but Ethiopian traditions lay a strong claim upon her, and also upon the famed Ark of the Covenant.
In Islamic tradition, the Queen of Sheba is Belqais, and her home is Yemen or its vicinity. In Ethiopian tradition, the queen's name is Makeda, or Mageda, and she hails from Axum.
Biblical and Quranic tradition tells us little about Belqais or Mageda, apart from her brief encounter with King Solomon and the way they both impressed each other with their power and wealth.
According to the Bible (Kings 10:1-13), here is what happened between those two powerful monarchs:
When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relationship to the Lord, she came to test Solomon with hard questions. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan -- with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones -- she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind. Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her. When the queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon and the palace he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his officials, the attending servants in their robes, his cupbearers, and the burnt offerings he made at the temple of the Lord, she was overwhelmed. She said to the king, "The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard. How happy your people must be! How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! Praise be to the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the Lord's eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness." And she gave the king 120 talents of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones. Never again were so many spices brought in as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba all she desired and asked for, besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty. Then she left and returned with her retinue to her own country.
In Ethiopian tradition, the story doesn't end here. The queen goes back home where she gives birth to Solomon's child, Menelik, who at one point goes to Jerusalem to meet his father, King Solomon, then returns home with the Ark of the Covenant in his luggage.
The Ark is said to be still in Ethiopia to this day, tucked away in a church in Axum, and only the monks guarding it are allowed to see it. Even the head of the Ethiopian Church doesn't have this privilege. Non-Ethiopians may find it hard to believe the story, but it is an article of faith in this ancient land.
Menelik is considered to be the head of the Solomon Dynasty that ruled Abyssinia for nearly 3,000 years, its last scion was Haile Selassie, the emperor who was ousted in a Marxist coup in 1974.
The first attempt to convert Ethiopians to Christianity was made by a church father known as Phillips, about 50 AD. According to Acts (8: 26-40), here is what happened:
An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip saying, "Arise and go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza." And he arose and went; and behold, there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure; and he had come to Jerusalem to worship. And he was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, "Go up and join this chariot." And when Philip had run up, he heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, "Do you understand what you are reading?" And he said, "Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. And the eunuch answered Philip and said, "Please tell me, of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself, or of someone else?" And Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. And as they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?" And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch; and he baptised him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch saw him no more, but went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus; and as he passed through he kept preaching the gospel to all the cities, until he came to Caesarea.
In another biblical tradition, Matthew the Apostle visited the Abyssinian eunuch, then went into the city after he shaved his head, and held a palm frond to appear like one of the monks. He found that the Abyssinians were worshipping idols. He had a discussion with the chief priest, Aramius, performed a variety of miracles in front of him, and had him convert to Christianity. After a period of turmoil, in which the local Christians were persecuted, Matthew also converted the governor of the city, which put an end to the persecutions.
Matthew lived in Abyssinia for 23 years, during which he propagated the Christian cause. He gained martyrdom in the city of Nadabah in 62 AD.
Christianity only took root in Ethiopia when the Egyptian church sent a bishop to Axum to establish the first church there. This happened in the time of Pope Athanasius of Alexandria, who was consecrated as the 20th head of the Egyptian Coptic Church in 326 AD. Pope Athanasius appointed the Patriarch Frumentius to be the first head of the Ethiopian Church in 330 AD.
The story was told by the Rufinus of Aquileia, who had the chance to meet with Aedesius, brother of the first patriarch of Abyssinia. According to Rufinus, the story began when Meropius, a philosopher from Tyre, wanted to go to India. He took two of his nephews, two Christian boys, one called Frumentius and the other called Aedesius, with him. Their ship was attacked off the Horn of Africa, and the two brothers, the only survivors, were taken to the king's court in Aksum. Impressed by their diligence, the king appointed Aedesius as his chief waiter and Frumentius as his treasurer.
When power changed hands, the two brothers stayed in Abyssinia for a while, then one of them went back to Syria, where he told his story to Rufinus, and the other went to Alexandria to plead his case as the first patriarch of Abyssinia.
Pope Athanasius was sitting with his top aides when he was told that a stranger has come from Abyssinia and demanded an audience. The visitor, Frumentius, impressed the pope with his knowledge of Christianity and the local affairs of Abyssinia, that he gave him the job. The church that Frumentius proceeded to create played a major role in spreading the new faith across Abyssinia. Frumentius was lovingly referred to as Aba Salama, or father of peace, a name that is still in use today.
Since then, it became the custom of the Coptic Church to appoint the heads of the Ethiopian Church. The custom ended with the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. In the 1970s, the new Marxist government nationalised all land, including those of the church. In 1976, Partiarch Theophilos, the last patriarch appointed by the Egyptian Coptic Church was arrested. He was executed in secret in 1977.
The Ethiopian government had the Church elect a new patriarch, Tekle Haymanot. The new patriarch, however, resisted the dictates of the government, and relations between Church and government became strained.
When Haymanot died in 1988, Abune Mercurius, a parliamentarian with close connections with the government, was appointed in his place. After the fall of Mengistu's regime in 1991, Mercurius was dismissed. He fled the country to create a synod in exile, one that is recognised by several churches in North America and Europe.
Following the fall of the Derg in 1991, the then patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Mercurius, was dethroned in circumstances that remain under dispute. Patriarch Abune Mercurius and his supporters maintain that he was forced from office by the new Ethiopian regime, while his opponents maintain that the patriarch abdicated following numerous protests against him by the faithful. His attempt to reverse his abdication was refused by the Holy Synod of the Church, which authorised a new patriarchal election. Abune Paulos was elected in 1992, and Abune Mercurius and his supporters went into exile, establishing a rival synod in the United States. The enthronement of Abune Paulos as patriarch is still recognised by all the canonical Orthodox Christian churches, such as the Coptic Patriarchate in Alexandria, Egypt.
One of the reasons monasticism took root in Ethiopia was the advent of nine monks from Egypt around 480. The top monk was Anba Mikhail Argawi, the founder of Debra Damo monastery. Others included Anba Youanes, founder of the Debra Sina Monastery, and Anba Libanos, founder of the Debra Libanos monastery.
The Ethiopian Church follows the doctrine and rituals of the Egyptian Coptic Church. However, local norms and customs have influenced many of its rituals and practices. Christians in Ethiopia now number some 45 million. The Ethiopian Church has nearly 50,000 churches and 1,200 monasteries, as well as three ecclesiastical colleges. And, links with its Coptic counterpart in Egypt continue to flourish.