Ethiopia has had 1,000 years of Judaism, followed by 2,000 years of Christianity, and the Orthodox Coptic Church is rooted in the Old Testament. They trace their Judaic beliefs to the Queen of Sheba and her meeting with King Solomon. They became Christians with the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch who was baptized by Philip. Believers follow the same dietary laws as Judaism (as set out in Leviticus) meaning that they keep kosher, even though they are Christians. Some villagers in the countryside still hold Saturday sacred as the Sabbath day.
The majority of Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia say they attend church weekly (78%) and pray daily (65%),
and nearly all (98%) say religion is “very important” in their lives,
according to the Pew Research Center.
A day trip from Addis Ababa took us to Debre Libanos Monastery and Church. This is a revered site, and the period of fasting for Lent had begun the previous day, so there were many worshipers (pilgrims) making their way to the church. We arrived in the morning prior to the Noon Mass, and were able to have a tour inside the church. Shari was given a “proper” covering before entering the Church.
The current church was built by former Emperor Hailie Selassie, and has beautiful stained glass windows. The largest panels on one side of the sanctuary feature OT Prophets, and on the other side the 12 Apostles. The center section has many stained glass squares plus large paintings of Christ’s life.
We removed our shoes before entering. (The cleric took our shoes inside and put them under a pew.) The men worshiped on the left side, and the women on the right side of a large dividing curtain. Most were in various postures of worship, but 3 ladies appeared to be taking a nap, and the cleric gave them a good scolding, “This is a place of prayer, not sleeping.” He was very apologetic to us.
We also had a tour of a museum featuring ancient hand written Biblical texts on goatskin, various items of worship, and various garments worn by clerics and priests of the Church. There were a number of styles of the cross used in worship services and in religious processionals. The silverwork was exquisite! We were not allowed to take pictures inside the museum, but these are photos of similar crosses.
According to an ancient text, Orthodox Ethiopians draw an historical connection to King Solomon of Israel, who is believed to have fathered a son with Queen Makeda of Ethiopia (the Queen of Sheba). This son, Menelik I, became an emperor of Ethiopia about 3,000 years ago and is said to have taken the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Ethiopia, where many Orthodox Ethiopians believe it still resides, according to the Pew Forum.
Our driver explained a lot to us about the worship and beliefs of the Orthodox Christians. He himself is a Protestant, and does not follow the OT traditions. His church teaches more from the New Testament. He showed us a video of a Christian concert that he attended and played songs from their church. Very lively!
Photos by Yordys and Petros Deresse
Crosses from “roots and culture”