Located in the northeastern corner of Africa, Ethiopia’s importance to global religious traditions cannot be overstated. Both the Bible and the Qur’an make reference to the country repeatedly. Over the past two thousand years, both Christianity and Islam have found a home in Ethiopia.
For this article, we’ll be looking at Ethiopian Christianity and its developments since the foundation of the Church. Due to its historical isolation from other Christian countries, Ethiopia developed its own unique traditions. These practices can still be observed today.
Yet Ethiopian Christianity is not a relic by any means. It is a living religious tradition with relevance to the world at large. Read on as we explore some of the fascinating history and practices of Ethiopian Christianity.
1. Ethiopian Christianity is one of the Christian Faith’s Oldest Branches
Here’s a fun fact: Ethiopia is actually the second-oldest Christian country in the world (Armenia is the first). Ethiopian Christianity dates back to the fourth century, when King Ezana of Aksum converted to the faith of Jesus Christ. Tradition says that a Phoenician missionary named Frumentius arrived in Ethiopia with merchants. Upon his arrival in Ethiopia, Frumentius became a slave of Aksum’s ruling family. He would go on to instruct the young prince Ezana. Evidently, Frumentius’ teaching moved Ezana enough to declare Christianity Aksum’s official religion upon his own accession to the throne. The new ruler may have also wanted stronger ties with the Christianized Romans.
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Archaeological evidence from Ezana’s era highlights the new importance of Christianity in the Horn of Africa. Many Aksumite coins feature the cross, and scholars have unearthed church ruins from the late fourth century. Some artifacts also display non-Christian motifs, illustrating the mixture of indigenous Ethiopian and early Christian beliefs and styles.
2. The Ethiopian Church Forms a Part of Oriental Orthodoxy
Not only is the Ethiopian Church one of Christianity’s oldest, but it is also part of a branch of the faith largely unknown outside of Africa and Asia. This Christian branch, called Oriental Orthodoxy, also encompasses the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Church of Egypt, and a number of others across Asia. The roots of Oriental Orthodoxy long predate the Great Schism, which split the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches apart in 1054.
The Oriental Orthodox Churches broke off communion from the rest of Christianity after the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This council was an extension of earlier debates in the city of Ephesus concerning the nature of Jesus Christ. Some 520 bishops from across the Christian world attended at the request of Byzantine Emperor Marcian. After much debate, the Council formulated the Chalcedonian Confession, declaring that Jesus had two distinct natures: divine and human. Church leaders hoped their decision would undermine the claims of the heretical Nestorians. To the churches in Egypt and Ethiopia, however, they seemed to actually reinforce them.
In contrast to the Council of Chalcedon, Coptic Egyptian and Ethiopian Christianity claimed Jesus only had a single nature. As the incarnation of God, Jesus had a unitary nature that was simultaneously divine and human. Unsurprisingly, the Chalcedonian Confession deemed this position (known as miaphysitism) as heresy. From this point onward, the Oriental Orthodox churches would go their own way. They maintained communion with each other but had little contact with the rest of Christianity for the next thousand years.
3. The Last Ethiopian Dynasty Derived its Legitimacy from Christian Mythos
From the days of King Ezana, Ethiopian Christianity had an intimate connection with local ideas about rulership. This is especially true of the Solomonic dynasty (r. 1270-1974). As its name suggests, the family claimed direct descent from the Biblical King Solomon. According to Ethiopian tradition, a southern ruler, the Queen of Sheba, had journeyed to Jerusalem to give gifts to Solomon. The two monarchs conceived a child together, Menelik I, who would become the first emperor of Ethiopia.
The Kebra Nagast, a crucial Ethiopian epic, recounts Menelik’s genealogy in great detail. The document seems to have buttressed the new dynasty’s claim to the throne. Additionally, the epic states that Menelik brought the fabled Ark of the Covenant back to Ethiopia with him. This story has since served as a great source of pride for Ethiopian believers. Currently, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims the Ark is housed in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Aksum. It was at this church that the Solomonic emperors were crowned rulers of Ethiopia.
4. Ethiopian Christian Art Takes on Many Unique Forms
One of the most persistent sources of conflict in Christian theology involves the ritual usage of iconic paintings. Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches have long employed them in worship. The Catholic Church does as well. However, aniconism (the opposition to religious art), was one factor that contributed to the Protestant Reformation in 1517. Many Protestant ministers viewed icons as examples of idolatry that had to be purged.
Ethiopian Christianity has valued icons since at least the fifteenth century. This, unfortunately, only accounts for surviving works. Ethiopian Christian icons from the early modern era tend to have several similar features. Biblical figures have large, almond-shaped eyes and appear two-dimensional. Reds, greens, and shades of gold adorn them. The diptych and triptych — formats popular in the Northern Renaissance in Europe — developed independently in Ethiopia as well. Common scenes in Ethiopian iconography include the birth of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the angels. The story of Saint George (of dragon-slaying fame) also took on critical importance.
In addition to icon paintings, Ethiopians created ornate processional crosses. Like the Catholic Church, Ethiopian Christianity developed an ancient tradition of illuminated manuscript production. Monasteries, some with patronage from the emperors themselves, produced manuscripts depicting scenes from the Gospels. Sadly, not many of these illuminated manuscripts have survived. Wars with neighboring Muslim kingdoms, among other factors, led to their destruction. However, it is possible that some manuscripts still exist in private locations.
5. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church Places More Emphasis on Fasting Than Other Christian Denominations
Fasting is an important component of all major Christian denominations. Ethiopian Christianity places a particularly heavy emphasis on fasting relative to the other churches. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s fasting schedule follows a highly conservative interpretation of Biblical teachings, specifically 1 Corinthians. Ordinary Orthodox believers must fast for 180 days out of the year. For priests and monks, the number of fast days increases to 250.
One of the longest fasting periods in the Ethiopian calendar is the Nativity Fast. For 40 days prior to Orthodox Christmas (January 7), Ethiopian believers only break their daily fast with a single vegan meal per day. The Lenten fasting period is even longer than the Nativity Fast, at fifty-five days. For Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, fasting is a mandate required to celebrate what God has given his creation.
6. Similarities Between Ethiopian Christianity and Non-Christian Religions
Given Ethiopia’s history as a center for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church follows several unique beliefs. Among other provisions, believers do not eat pork, and animals must be slaughtered in a ritually specified manner. In this regard, Ethiopian Christianity more closely resembles Judaism than it does other Christian denominations.
Social conduct also differs in many regards from other churches around the world. Ethiopian men overwhelmingly undergo circumcision as children — a practice universal to Jews and Muslims, but not Christians. Orthodox women are not allowed to go to church during menstruation. Women and men also sit in different sections of some churches. Similarly to most schools of Sunni Islam, Ethiopian Orthodox customs mandate women cover their hair during religious services. Both men and women take their shoes off during prayer, based on the example of the prophet Moses in the Book of Exodus.
Yet Ethiopian Orthodoxy does share its most important qualities with other Christian churches. The Holy Trinity lies at the core of Orthodox belief. Ethiopian Christians also practice the giving of the Eucharist, although only those who ritually cleanse themselves beforehand can receive it.
7. Ethiopian Christianity Could Play a Role in Environmental Conservation
In our own tumultuous era, scholars often overlook the potential role religion could play in combatting climate change. Solving the climate crisis is not solely a scientific problem; it is equally a sociocultural issue. An old tradition in Ethiopian Christianity could offer both a local and global solution to problems like deforestation.
In 2020, Nature and Emergence Magazine each delved into Ethiopia’s “church forests”— oases of green surrounding Orthodox churches. Dr. Alemayehu Wassie, an Ethiopian ecologist working with researchers and Orthodox priests alike, has spearheaded efforts to preserve the church forests. As he explains in a short film interview, Ethiopian Christianity regards church forests as akin to the Garden of Eden. To Alemayehu, the health of the forests matters not only for biodiversity reasons but for theological ones as well.
Alemayehu and the Orthodox priests have constructed walls around church forests across Ethiopia. Their goal is to prevent further encroachment of cattle grazing and agriculture. In a heavily agricultural nation like Ethiopia, this is no easy task. Yet appealing to local customs and sensibilities may just prove to be the best way to simultaneously uphold tradition and save the planet.