The Cradle of Christianity

It is Christmas Day in Lalibela, Ethiopia—December 25, the day chosen to commemorate the birth of Christ in the world of Western Christianity. In Ethiopia, the celebration won’t arrive for another fifteen days because the Ethiopian Orthodox Church adheres to the Eastern calendar. Nevertheless, inside Bete Maryam, one of the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, a service is taking place. The language is Geez, a Semitic relative of Hebrew and Arabic that was brought to Ethiopia by the Nine Saints, who fled Byzantine persecution after the 451 Council of Chalcedon.

A Caretaker Priest

The priests, dressed in white robes—symbol of purity—lead the faithful in song. It is slow and solemn, with the mystical rhythm of a chant. One beats a traditional drum. Both ends are covered in stretched cowhide. The small base represents the Old Testament, the broader, flat surface, the New. Another priest waves back and forth a sistra, a small handheld instrument in which five coins, representing the nails of the cross, chime with metallic clinking. Those in attendance read from pocket-sized prayer books. The covers are worn and the pages frayed from years of use.

The service is short by Ethiopian standards. This one ran only two hours. Some may last eight, ten, or even fourteen, depending on the occasion being observed. The congregants emerge and retrieve their shoes, left on the stone step at the entrance. In Ethiopian tradition, they have simply followed the orders of God, who commanded Abraham to remove his shoes when standing on holy ground.

A St. Mary's Caretaker

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, as it is formally known, is no upstart on the African continent. Christianity arrived in Ethiopia in the early fourth century, several hundred years before it spread north into Western Europe following the fall of the Roman Empire. It had thrived in Ethiopia for over a thousand years before European missionaries from France, Belgium, and England began seeking converts in their African colonies. According to legend—and much of Ethiopian history is a magical kaleidoscope of myth and fact—sometime in the early fourth century two Syrian brothers, Frumentius and Edesius, shipwrecked on the Eritrean coast, made their way to the royal city of Axum, where they became confidants of King Ezana. Over time, Frumentius persuaded the king to also accept Christianity, and Ezana then dispatched him to Egypt, to request that the Coptic pope appoint a bishop for the African kingdom. The pope appointed Frumentius, who returned as Ethiopia’s first prelate.

But King Ezana had been beaten to the baptismal font. According to an account in the Acts of the Apostles, an Ethiopian eunuch on his way to Jerusalem encountered Saint Phillip on the road to Gaza. The eunuch asked Phillip for an explanation of a passage from the Book of Isaiah. Phillip obliged, and the eunuch asked to be baptized, resulting in the first Christian from Ethiopia and the first Christian on the African continent.

In the seventh century the Arab invasion converted many Ethiopians to Islam, but Christianity remained the official religion of the state. After the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 1187 by the Iraqi general Saladin, King Lalibela resolved to recreate the holy city in Ethiopia. Landmarks in town and its surroundings were renamed in honor of biblical sites in Jerusalem, and the trickle of a stream that runs through town still goes by the name River Jordan.

Bet Medhane

But Lalibela’s most ambitious achievement was the construction of a dozen churches, sculpted from the substrata of rock entirely below the surface of the Earth. Work began around 1200, and the most devout claim that the work was completed in twenty-three years—thanks to assistance from angels and other divine beings who sped the project along. Archaeologists, however, estimate that the entire effort lasted into the 14th century. Whatever the time frame, the result was a feat of engineering that rivaled the gothic cathedrals of Europe—but in the opposite direction: while European architects sought religious glory by reaching for the heavens, Lalibela chose to seek its depths.

“In terms of basic doctrine, we adhere to all the principles of Christianity, but we identify more with the Old Testament than the New,” Deacon Tedros told me late one afternoon after giving me a tour of St. George Cathedral, in central Addis Ababa. A service taking place provided a living illustration. The slow, rhythmic beating of the ceremonial drum and somber chanting of the priests hinted at a deeper, mystical experience than usually associated with Sunday Mass in the West. In the Ethiopian Church’s belief system, saints and angels, known as kidusan, serve as intermediaries between God and man, and the practice of segregating men and women during a service, and dietary laws that prohibit the consumption of pork, find resonance in Judaism.

When European missionaries brought Christianity to Africa, it was often fused with animist beliefs and elements of the traditional religions to make it more acceptable to the local populations. In Ethiopia, Christianity had already found relatives among the growing Christian family: the Armenian Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox, the Coptic Church of Egypt, and the Malankara of India.

“We also believe in the unified nature of Christ, that he embodied a single nature that was both divine and human,” Deacon Tedros went on. “Tewahedo means ‘unified’ in Geez. Western Catholicism views Christ as possessing two separate entities within a single being.”

St. George's Cross

Some Ethiopian churches, like Addis Ababa’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, were constructed in the longitudinal basilica style, but most, like St. George, are the traditional octagon, where the center is dominated by an inner sanctum—an architectural style also attributed to early synagogues. This is surrounded by a circular hall, usually adorned with frescoes depicting biblical stories and events from Ethiopian history, and beyond the outer wall lies an exterior courtyard. Only priests may enter the inner sanctum because it contains a representation of the Ark of the Covenant, or tabot, which only they may touch. As in Judaism, in which a synagogue is consecrated with the arrival of the Torah scrolls, a church only becomes a place of worship when it receives the tabot. The traditional complex is thus infused with symbolism: three concentric circles radiating from a central core, representing the three manifestations of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I asked Deacon Tedros if religious life in Ethiopia was primarily associated with the country’s ancient history and traditional culture, or if it manifested itself in various ways in daily life. He answered my question with one of his own: “Have you heard about our fasting days?”

I had. Ethiopians are devoted meat eaters, but restaurant menus throughout the country regularly offer vegetarian dishes, often described as “fasting food.” In Ethiopian Church practice Wednesday and Friday are “fasting days,” when no meat or dairy products may be consumed, and for the particularly devout the calendar adds another 150.

Despite its longevity on the African continent, in one respect the Ethiopian Church has only emerged from adolescence. For over 1,000 years, it operated under the authority of the Coptic Church, for the Coptic pope of Alexandria served as the patriarch of all Africa. But in 1959, following a 1948 agreement between the Coptic and Ethiopian churches, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was granted its own patriarch. So the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 1,700 years old, is now rising into maturity.