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The Many Faces of Ethiopia

With its ancient, layered history, Ethiopia remains a land of many cultures and peoples.

Ethiopia is a name that people remember but a face that they find difficult to place. Looking at a map of that eastern area of the continent called the Horn of Africa, we might imagine Ethiopia as the head and profile of an ancient civilization.

To the north, it faces Mecca, Jerusalem and Egypt. The Crusaders, thinking Ethiopia to be a Christian outpost in the midst of a sea of unbelief, came there seeking the legendary Prester John who they hoped would lead them into battle in the Holy Land. The Egyptians believed that they had received some of their gods from Ethiopia. They called it the “Land of Punt,” the Land of God. In the course of its history, Africans, Jews, Christians, and Moslems all brought their religions to God’s country.

Turning to the east, Ethiopia looks toward Somalia and Djibouti on the African continent and Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula. All of this territory was a single nation at the time of the Hebrew King Solomon and the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba. The Bible constantly refers to the power, the wealth and the beauty of the Ethiopian people.

To the south, Ethiopia regards the Black African nations of Kenya and Uganda with which it shares a common racial origin. When the Greeks came into contact with the Ethiopians, they coined a name for them. They believed the Ethiopians were darker than Europeans because they lived closer to the sun. The Greeks used two words to describe them: “ethios,” which means “burnt,” and “ops,” which means “face.”

Westward, Ethiopia contemplates the Sudan and its capital, Khartoum, located on the Nile. The great river begins its flow to the Mediterranean through the banks of the Blue Nile which rises in western Ethiopia.

As we scrutinize the face more closely, we find that Ethiopia is scarred by the Great Rift Valley, a slash on the surface of the earth extending from the Dead Sea to South Africa. On either side of this cleavage, the earth’s skin builds up to Ethiopia’s eastern and western highlands. Like tears brought on by the pain of this wound, lakes and streams form on the weather-beaten face of the country.

The nearer we get to Ethiopia, the more closely we see the lines of age that give character to this nation of 27,000,000 people. Archeologists discovered the remains of a man-like creature who lived a million and a half years ago in the Valley of Omo. Anthropologists find evidence that Ethiopian civilization is older than even Egyptian civilization. Jews, Christians, and Moslems discover part of their past in Ethiopia. Centuries of isolation from outsiders have preserved primitive elements of each of these religions there.

Ethiopia is the home of the Falashas, the “Black Jews.”As their name implies, they are “wanderers” who immigrated to Ethiopia where they were converted by Yemenite Jews. Four centuries ago, they numbered half a million people; today they are only 28,000 living as farmers in scattered villages. They have their own prayer customs which distinguish them from other Jews. They do not celebrate the Feasts of Hanukkah or Purim, for example, and their Bible is written in Ge’ez, not in Hebrew. Until they were discovered in 1870 by Joseph Halevy, they believed that they were the only Jews left in the world.

Half the population of Ethiopia is Christian. Most of them belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. They are Copts who trace the beginnings of their Church back to the fourth century preaching of Frumentius and Aedisius. They follow the Alexandrian rite and do not accept as an article of faith the conclusion of the Council of Chalcedon of 451 on the two natures of Christ. As Monophysites, the Coptic Christians of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church believe that Christ has only one single nature, His divine nature. Until 1948 the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Abuna, was an Egyptian appointed by the Coptic Pope who resides in Alexandria. Since then the Abuna has been chosen from among the Ethiopian clergy.

The Ethiopian Church has a long tradition of monasticism and a great number of priests. One out of five Ethiopian men is a priest. The most famous of all centers of Ethiopian monasticism is the town of Lalibela, situated about 400 miles north of the capital city of Addis Ababa. In the twelfth century King Lalibela, for whom the town has been named, began the construction of a dozen churches carved out of the volcanic rock on which the town was built. Workers chiseled away the rock, forming courtyards around the solid blocks of stone that remained. Today there are 100 priests serving the 12 churches and the few thousand people who live in and around the town. They carry out the Coptic traditions, observing such practices as a 50-day Lenten fast and ritual bathing on the Feast of the Epiphany. They also keep alive the customs of their ancestors who saw Lalibela as Jerusalem. Even today, people refer to a stream running through the town as the Jordan and to one of the churches located on a higher promontory as the New Jerusalem. In Lalibela time has stopped on the face of the clock by which religious history is measured. The countenances of its churches have remained unchanged for centuries. The outward form of its worship continues unaltered to the present day.

A third of the people in Ethiopia are Moslems. They trace their origins back to the seventh century. The Ethiopians protected companions of Mohammed who fled from Arabia to what was then the capital city of Axum in 615. For this kindness, Mohammed ordered that his followers not take up arms against the Ethiopians. This decree and the very remoteness of the country’s towns and villages saved the people from the religious warfare that devastated much of the Near East during the Middle Ages.

Broad strokes of the brush can give us only a partial picture of the religious history of Ethiopia. They place its important geographical features in focus. As we augment the lines and shadows of history with the light of new knowledge, we see Ethiopia as a study in contrast. It is at once an African nation and a Near Eastern country. It is a Christian land and at the same time it is the home of ancient forms of Judaism, Islam and traditional African religions. These many visages of Ethiopia give us the vivid image of a 2,000-year-old civilization that enables us to match the name with the face.

Father Mulkerin is Assistant Regional Director of Sub-Sahara Africa for Catholic Relief Services.

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