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The Establishment of the Ethiopian Church

Pre-Christian Times

By Professor Sergew Habele Selassie

Traditional Sources

According to traditional sources, paganism as well as Judaism were practiced side by side in Ethiopia before the introduction of Christianity. Both were the result of contact with Middle Eastern countries through commercial channels. It believed that at an early stage of Ethiopian history, the worship of the serpent was widespread and the Ethiopians offered sacrifices to it. This is confirmed to some extent by archaeological evidence found at Axum: on one of the stelae at Axum an engraving of serpent is still visible today. Though the worship of serpent was spread through almost all the countries of Middle East, we have reason to believe that this cult was introduced directly to Ethiopia from Persia. The description in Avesta, the sacred book of Persia, concerning the worship of serpent, is identical with the tradition found in Ethiopia.

Archaeological Sources

The Sabaean migrants who crossed the Red Sea in the first millennium B.C and settled in Ethiopia brought with them their own religion. They were polytheists, and worshipped different gods of heaven, the earth and the sea. Almouqah (Elmouqah), for example, was the principal god of the south Arabian pantheon, and was retained as such in Ethiopia. Other Sabaean gods, like Astar (Astarte), corresponding to Aphrodite and Venus of the Greek and Roman world, sin the moon god shams the sun god, were widely worshipped in Ethiopia. Later, with the introduction of Greek culture into Ethiopia, worship of the Greek pantheon became widespread. In the well-known Greek inscription, left at Adulis by an anonymous Ethiopia Emperor, mention is made of Zeus, Poseidon and Aries. On the reverse of the monument appear engravings of another Greek god and demi-god, Hermes and Hercules, Aries was in fact the personal god of the Ethiopian Emperors of the pre-Christian era, as shown in the frequent references made to him in epigraphic inscriptions.

After the third century, with the development of more purely Ethiopian civilization, Ethiopic names evolved for the gods then worshipped. This can be observed in the pre-Christian Ge’ez inscriptions of Emperor Ezana, where Ethiopic names replace the Sabaean or Greek names. Mahrem corresponds to Aries, Baher to Poseidon, and seamy to the Sabaean god Almouqah.

Temples, altars and statues were dedicated to gods. In Yeha there is a well-preserved temple dedicated to Almouqah. This temple was created before fifth century; it is rectangular in form with a double wall and single door. A similar temple to the same god existed at Hawlti-Melazo, near Axum, but it is now in ruins. A temple dedicated to Aries is found in Axum itself. Altars to the gods were also erected in various places. For example, at Kaskasse about eight kilometers northeast of Matara, there is an altar with a Sabaean dedicatory inscription to god sin, engraved with the symbols of the crescent and disc. There are also many altars bearing dedications in Sabaean to Almouqah. After his victory over the Beja people on the northern frontier of his domain, the Emperor Ezana erected status in gold silver and bronze to the god Aries.


Information about the introduction of Judaism into Ethiopia is found in the kebre Negest, (The Glory of the king). The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon in Jerusalem is recounted there. On her return to Ethiopia she had born him a son, whom she named Menelik. When Menelik grew up he visited his father in Jerusalem, and came home accompanied by many Israelites, the sons of Levites and bringing with him the Ark of the Covenant, which he had obtained by subterfuge. From then on, Judaism was practiced in Ethiopia. It is side by some authorities that the Falasha tribes of northern Ethiopia, who practice a form of Judaism to this day, are descendants of the Israelites. The form of Judaism professed in apparently a development of a pre-Talmudic type of worship.

The Introduction of Christianity

St. Frumentius and the Conversion of Ezana c. 330 A.D

Although Christianity became the official religion of the Aksumite kingdom in the fourth century, the religion had been known in Ethiopia since a much earlier time. In the Acts of the Apostles, VIII: 26-40, we are told of a certain Eunuch, the treasures of Queen Candace of Ethiopia, who went to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel. There he met Philip the Deacon and was baptized by him. Ethiopian tradition asserts that he returned home and evangelized the people. In his Homily on Pentecost, St. John Chrysostom mentions that the Ethiopians were present in the Holy City on the day of Pentecost. Later, when the Apostles went out to preach the Gospel, Matthew was allotted the task of carrying the good news to Ethiopia, where he suffered martyrdom. Ethiopian sources, such as the Synaxarium, make no mention of this, however; on the contrary, Ethiopians believe that received Christianity without shedding apostolic blood. Nevertheless, Christianity without certainly known in Ethiopia before the time of Frumentius, being the faith practiced by many of the merchants from the Roman Empire Settled in the Aksumite region. In important cities, such as Axum and Adulis, these Christian merchants had their prayer houses and openly practiced their religion.

The introduction of Christianity as the state religion of Ethiopia came about not as the result of organized evangelical activity from outside the country, but because it was the desire of the king. The story of the conversation of the Axumites has come down to us in the work of the contemporary Church historian, Rufinus (d 410 A.D). Meropius, a philosopher from Tyre, set out to visit India accompanied by two young relatives, Frumentius and Aedesius, Apparently they followed the usual itinerary of the time along the Africa coast of the Red Sea. In the course of their journey they run short of provisions and put in at a port of the African coast. The local inhabitants, however, were hostile to Roman citizens, as they massacred Meropius and all aboard the ship, sparing only the two boys, who were taken to the king. They soon gained his interest and won his confidence. The younger, Aedesius, he made his cup-bearer, while the elder, Frumentius, who showed signs of wisdom and maturity, become his treasurer and secretary. The king died early, leaving his wife with an infant son as heir to the throne. Now the dying king had given Frumentius and Aedesius leave to return to their own country if they so wished, but the Queen-Mother who was left as Regent, begged them to remain to help her administer the kingdom until her son should grow up. The young men agreed, and stayed to carry out the task faithfully.

The thought of Frumentius then began to turn towards matters of faith. He sought out Christians among the Roman merchants settled at Axum, and encouraged them to establish meeting-places for prayer, helping then in every way he could, according them favours and benefits, and gradually spreading the seed of Christianity among the people. The young king himself became a convert. When he was old enough to rule the country alone, Frumentius and Aedesius asked him for permission to leave Axum. Aedesius returned home to Tyre, but Frumentius went to Alexandria and laid the whole affair before the newly- appointed patriarch, Athanasius, begging him to appoint a bishop to minister to the needs of the growing Christian community at Axum. The patriarch summoned a council of priests to consider the matter. It was agreed that Frumentius himself should be consecrated as the first Bishop of Axum. Thus he returned to propagate the faith in the land he knew so well so well. Although Rufinus does not specify the name of the country to which Frumentius went, other sources are more specific in this respect. A letter from the Emperor Constantius, written in 356 A.D to his “precious brothers”, Aezana and Saezana, rulers of Axum, concerns the Bishop Frumentius. Furthermore, the inscriptions and coins of the Emperor Ezana testify to his adoption of Christianity. In his earlier inscriptions he styles himself “Son of unconquered Mahrem”, but in the inscription after his victory over Nubia the employed anew terminology, speaking of “the Lord of heaven and earth”, and describing how he had destroyed the “images in their temples”, thus affirming his dissociation from paganism. A recently discovered Greek inscription belonging to Ezana leaves no doubt on this matter. It begins: “in the faith of God and the power of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”. Likewise, the coins minted in the early part of Ezana’s reign bear the pagan symbol of the crescent and disc, while those minted in the later part of his reign bear the sign of the cross.

The introduction of Christianity as the state religion marked a turning point in Ethiopia history. Christianity does not constitute a purely religious phenomenon on the country, but plays an integral role in all aspects of national life. The Church is not only a religious institution, but has for many centuries been the repository of the cultural, political and social life of the people. The true feeling of the people who first received Christianity seems to have been expressed in the names they bestowed upon Frumentius, which are Abba Salama. Kassate Berhan, “Father of peace and Revealer of light”. It is interesting to note that Ezana and Saezana appear to have baptized with names also signifying illumination – Abreha (He illuminated) and Atsbeha (He brought the dawn).

In Ethiopia, the diffusion of Christianity did not follow the same pattern as in the Graeco-Roman world, where Christianity was confined to the lower levels of society for three centuries, and utterly rejected by the ruling classes. Only at the beginning of the fourth century did it begin to gain a few converts among members of the imperial family. In Ethiopia the converse was true. Christianity was introduced first in to the royal court, and from there gradually penetrated among the common people. Likewise, in the Roman Empire, the Apostles and later the Church fathers were actively engaged in the evangelization of the people; in Ethiopia, Christianity was voluntarily adopted.

The birth of Ethiopian Church took place at a time when the Arian heresy was at its peak. When Frumentius was consecrated, the Patriarchate of Alexandria, under the leadership of Athanasius, “the Column of Orthodoxy”, was the stronghold of the Nicene faith against Arianism. Constantius expelled Athanasius, however and installed an Arian, George of Cappadocia, in his place. The first ecumenical Council, where Arius was condemned as a heretic, took place in 325, Shortly before the establishment of the Ethiopian church, but the decision of the Council was nevertheless regarded as binding, and Ethiopia stood by Athanasius, and the Nicene Faith. In vain, Constantius, the son of Constantine the Great, tried to bring Ethiopia onto the heresy of Arius. It was for this reason that he addressed the orthodox group of any support, and ensures international recognition of Arianism. A certain Theophilus, a priest from Socotra, highly respected for his impeccable moral character, was entrusted with this mission to Axum, but he was apparently not even allowed to enter Aksumite territory. His mission failed, and Frumentius remained in Axum, to continue the teaching which he had learnt from Athanasius. The Ethiopian church holds Athanasius in special veneration. He was canonized as a saint, and his work, The Life of Saint Anthony, was translated into Ethiopic. One of the fourteen Anaphora’s of the Ethiopian Church is attributed to Athanasius. The 318 Father who participated in the First Ecumenical Council are also specially venerated, and another Anaphora of the Liturgy bears their name, as the Anaphora of the Three Hundred Fathers.

The Expansion and Consolidation of Christianity C. 350 TO 650 A.D.

Evangelistic Activities

According to the chronological lists of the Ethiopian bishops, Frumentius was succeeded by the Bishop Minas. He was apparently of Egyptian origin. From this time onward began the peculiar Alexandrian jurisdiction over Ethiopian Church, which was to last for sixteen hundred years. Throughout this period Ethiopians were not considered to be eligible for consecration as bishops. Minas left certain literary works concerning his missionary activities but the major contribution in the missionary field was that of the nine Saints. They came to Axum about 480, and well received by the emperor Ella Amida and by the inhabitants of the city. The most outstanding figures among the Nine Saints were Za-Mikael Aregawi, Pantalewon, Afse, and Garima or Isaac (Yeshaq). As their names indicate, they came from different parts of the Eastern Roman Empire, such as Constantinople and Syria. They were all adherents of the same doctrine, however it seems that they left the countries of their origin because of religious differences; they were anti-Chalcedonian, and thus were persecuted by the roman emperor, who was an ardent supporter of the Chalcedonian doctrines. They went first to Egypt, and lived some years at the monastery founded by Pachomius, before proceeding to Ethiopia. In Axum they studied the language and became familiar with the people and customs. After this preparation they set out in different directions to proselytize and to introduce monastic institutions. Only two of them, Abba Libanos and Abba Pantalewon, remained near Axum itself, the others went further east of the capital and founded hermitages in the old pagan centres. Za-Mikael went to Debra Damo where the worship of the serpent had long flourished. He succeeded in eradicating the cult, and founded a monastery there. Abba Pantalewon transformed a pagan temple into a church. Abba Afse went to Yeha, the renowned Sabaean center, and likewise transformed the famous temple there into a church. The Afse went to Yeha, the renowned Sabaean center, and likewise transformed the famous temple there into church. The efforts of the Nine Saints to wipe out paganism did not result in their persecution, as had happened in the Roman Empire, since in Axum they had the protection and support of the sovereign.

The Nine Saints also contributed greatly to the development of the Ge’ez liturgy and literature. They introduced terms and vocabulary into Ge’ez, such as Haymanote, Religion, qasis, priest, and ta’ot, idols. But their major contribution was undoubtedly their great work of Biblical translation into Ge’ez. The work of translation had begun in part during the time of Frumentius, at that time only a few of the basic Books for worship, such as passages of the psalms, had been translated as revealed in contemporary inscriptions. The Nine Saints undertook the massive task of translating the whole Bible. Since they were familiar with both Syriac and Greek, they used a Syrio-Greek text for this purpose. Most probably each of the Nine Saints translated one portion of the Bible. This is why the Ethiopic version reveals considerable differences in style from one Book to another. The Ethiopic version is one of the earliest Bible translations, and as such it is great importance in textual criticism and in establishing the original text.

The Nine Saints also translated a number of basic religious works into Ge’ez. These are of both doctrinal and literary content. Under the title of Qerllos (Cyril) were translated dogmatical treatises and homilies of the Church Fathers, in particular the work known as de Recta Fide by St.Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria. On this book which was translated from the Greek text, is based the teaching of the Ethiopian Church. Other works translated at this period include The Ascetic Rules of Pachomius, which still today regulate the monastic life of Ethiopia, and the Life of Saint Anthony by St, Athanasius, which is still widely read in Ethiopian Church circles.

Music and Art

The coming of the Nine Saints inaugurated a new era in the liturgical life of the Ethiopian Church and in cultural development in general. Music and art Flourished. To Yared, an Aksumite scholar of the time, is attributed the creation of Ethiopian church music. He was a disciple of the nine saints, probably of Aregawi, and composed music in three modes, which is still used in the Ethiopian church. The hymnary attributed to him is rich in inspiration and expression: perhaps it is one of the best of its kind in the orient. The influence of the nine saints extended also to art and architecture. The ruins of basilicas found in the ancient cities of Axum, Adulis and Hawlti may show a resemblance to Syriac churches. Of Aregawi at Debra Damo is the oldest existing example of Christian architecture in Ethiopia, and traces of this influence can be seen in it.

Church Organization

After the expansion of Christianity there was at least four dioceses in Ethiopia, each headed by a bishop. The chief of these was obviously the metropolitan of Axum. The second most important diocese was Adulis; it was through this ancient port that Christianity was first introduced to Ethiopian. As we have already mentioned, all the bishops were of Egyptian origin. They were closely associated both dogmatically and judicially with the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria. The latter sent Egyptian bishops to Ethiopia whenever necessary until the rise of Islam. To perpetuate his Egyptian suzerainty over the Ethiopian church, it became necessary to adduce legal justification. The Egyptians therefore inserted the forty-second Pseudo-Canon of the Council of Nicea, prohibiting the Ethiopians from occupying hierarchical positions. The authenticity of this Article was highly suspect to the Ethiopian clergy, but was nevertheless respected until the thirteenth century, when a new wave of independence arose. Once again it become necessary for the Egyptians, who did not wish to relinquish their prerogative, to renew the prohibition, and the same Article was inserted in the Fetha Negest, the politico- religious code under which the country was governed for more than six hundred years. Thus, an Egyptian bishop always remained at the head of the Ethiopian Church from its foundation up to the second half of the 20th century. This is a unique phenomenon in the history of the Christian Church.

Copied from: A publication of the EOTC
Written by Professor Sergew Hable Sellassie and Professor Tadesse Tamerat “THE CHURCH OF ETHIOPIA A PANORAMA OF HISTORY AND SPIRITUAL LIFE” Addis Ababa –December 1970.

A Period of Conflict C. 700 – 1200 A.D.

By Professor Taddese Tamerat

The rise of Islam and its impact on Ethiopia

The period following the rise and the rapid expansion of Islam in the near and the Middle East was a very critical one for the Christian kingdom of Axum. The whole civilization and culture of Axum, as well as its economic life, was based on its international maritime connections, Ever since the Ptolemeys had taken a scientific and economic interest in the Red Sea area, Axum had become an integral part of the Hellenic world. Axum held the same position also during the Roman and Byzantine Empires. It was indeed not a mere coincidence that the Church in Axum was established immediately after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of his Byzantine dominions. There seems to be no doubt, now, that there were many individual Ethiopian and foreign Christian’s residing in the Aksumite kingdom, even before the formal establishment of the Church there. But the crucial step taken by Ezana to adopt the new religion and to make it a state Church followed upon a similar imperial decision by Constantine. It was also from the Eastern Mediterranean that the first Christian missionaries come to Axum. Abuna Salama and others such as the Nine Saints came from the Byzantine world, and endowed the Aksumite Church with its earliest characteristics. These regular contacts continued down to the seventh century, and all-important economic, political, and religious developments in the Byzantine world were also reflected in Axum. With the rapid Muslim conquest, however, these historical channels of communication were almost completely cut off. Only with the Alexandrian Church did Christian Ethiopia continue to have precarious contact.

Before the rise of Islam, Axum was an extensive maritime and commercial Empire. In its heyday, it ruled many districts in the southwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula, across the Red Sea. It controlled the land of the Beja, a people who inhabited northern Eritrea and what northeastern part of the Republic of the Sudan. In the west, the political and military sphere of influence of Axum had already reached the Nile valley by the fourth century A.D. Beyond the River Takazz’e, the district of Semien and probably also the region as far as Lake Tana were within its territorial limits. However, it was in the south, in the predominantly Agew populated areas of Tigrai, Wa’ag, Lasta, Anogot and Amhara where the heritage of Axum struck its deepest roots. When almost completely excluded from the Red Sea trade, and having lost its maritime international orientation, the kingdom of Axum turned towards this Agew interior, and made it the center of a distinctive Christian culture over the centuries.

The rulers of Axum had acquired strong footholds in these central highlands already before the establishment of the Christian Church in the kingdom. They sent numerous expeditions of war and conquest into these areas from where they obtained tribute and a continuous supply of ivory, gold, and slaves. The Aksumite governor of the Agew was responsible for the long-distance caravan route to Sassou-some where near Fazolgi in eastern Sudan –from where Axum obtained much gold. These precious commodities were used for the international trade across the Red Sea in which Aksum was most active.

After their conversion to Christianity the kings of Aksum consolidated their power by establishing churches and military colonies in these central highlands. There are still today a number of churches many of them dug out of the living rock in Tigrai and Lasta-which are attributed to the early Christian kings of Aksum. These churches and military settlements became centers of still further movements of small family groups from the more crowded parts of northern Ethiopia. In this way, the areas as far south as the region of northern Shoa were gradually affected by these slow population movements. Local traditions indicate that already in the tenth and eleventh centuries a number of small isolated Christian families had been established in the districts of Menz, Merhabite, Muger, and Bulga in northern Shoa. The spear head of Aksumite expansion may have even further south and east. This seems to be suggested by the geographical distribution of some of the Semitic languages of Ethiopia-Amharic, Argobba, Harari, Guragi, and Gafat.

All these regions in which the Aksumite were expanding were originally pagan lands, and the people spoke different Cushitic language. We have no historical data to show how these people lived, and how they were socially and politically organized before the advent of Aksumite rule. When the Aksumite conquered them, however, they imposed upon them their own religion, language, and Political organization. It was this Aksumite impact on the Agew and Sidama interior of the Ethiopian region which resulted in the creation of a number of small, predominantly pagan kingdoms of which we have distant echoes in the traditions of early and late mediaeval Ethiopia. Among these, were the political units of the Athagaw (=Agew) mentioned in the inscriptions the Aksumite kings against whom fought long wars of resistance; the Semenoi (that is, the ancient people of Semien) who also fought against, and were conquered by the Aksumite; the pagan kingdom of Gojjam, (also of Agew extraction),which was only integrated into the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia in the fourteenth century; and the legendary kingdom of Damot (probably inhabited by Southern Cushitic or Sidama peoples),which was still very strong between the tenth and thirteenth centuries in the whole region south and south-west of Shoa.

For about three centuries this area remained the center of the kingdom, which revived, once again, with a new identity as a land-locked Christian Empire. It entered a new period of conquest and expansion, and, according to an Arab historian of the tenth century, its political sphere of influence reached the region of Harar and Zeila. The same historian tells us, however, that in the middle of the same century the kingdom had suffered a number of military reverses, and the southern part of its territory was conquered by an apparently pagan queen, the queen of the Banu al-Hamuiyya, who had diplomatic and commercial relations with the Muslim kingdom of Yemen. The new political situation seems to have brought about a period of decline and internal conflict in the Christian kingdom. But the kingdom held on in the northern part of its territories unit the new Zagwe rulers took over in the middle of the twelfth century as we have mentioned earlier.

The term “Zagwe dynasty” means the dynasty of the Agew. As already stated above its rulers came from the district of Bugna, in Lasta. Their homeland was apparently one of the most important strongholds of the Agew people in their centuries-old relations with the Semitized Agew kingdom of Aksum. It was probably here that the armies of ancient Aksum were confronted with very strong movements of resistance when they were expanding southwards. It was also probably here that the Aksumite governor of the Agew had his headquarters from where he protected the long-distance gold trade of Aksum in the sixth century. All the dialectical groups of the Agew peoples consider this region as the land of their ancestors, and as a point of dispersal in their traditions of population movements. It was therefore not accidental that the Agew dynasty of Christian Ethiopia should emerge from precisely the same area.

The Agew people of Wa’ag and Lasta had already been within the Aksumite kingdom since the early centuries of the Christian era. It has already been said above that many churches in this area are attributed to the early Christian kings of Aksum. It was also in southern Tigrai and in Angot (northern Wollo), just next door to Wa’ag and Lasta, that the Christian kingdom had its political center for three centuries after the decline and fall of Aksum. The Agew peoples of these areas had therefore been profoundly acculturized by the Aksumite kingdom, and they had even adopted Christianity as their religion. The Agew kings of the Zagawe dynasty were therefore completely Christian from the start. They had, however, successfully resisted complete assimilation, particularly in a linguistic sense. Thus, although it is certain that they used Ge’ez as the language of their church services; they apparently continued to use their Agew mother tongue for their daily needs. Signs of this bi-linguality are clearly seen in some of the land charters given by the Zagwe kings in Ge’ez. In the major aspects of their rule, however, the Zagwe kings continued the cultural and political legacy of Aksum.

Revival of the Church (1200-1526)

By Professor Taddese Tamerat


The capital of the Zagwe kings was at Adefa, at the present site of the town of Lalibela. From here they continued the Aksumite imperial tradition of conquest and Christian expansion here at Adefa they received and entertained many delegations from the Patriarchate of Alexandria, and probably also from the Muslim rulers of Egypt. Kings Yimrha and Lalibela, the greatest kings of the Zagwe dynasty, had many such contacts with the eastern Mediterranean region and particularly with Egypt. The traditions about the building of the beautiful churches of Yimrahanne Kristos and the Lalibela group of rock-hewn churches are dominated by allusions to such international contacts. The characteristic aspects of the building of these religious monuments are essentially loyal, however, to the best traditions of Aksumite architectural art. Thus, although it can be surmised that the Zagwe kings may have used artisans from the eastern Mediterranean countries, the conception of the building was clearly indigenous and no doubt derived from the Aksumite heritage of the Zagwe dynasty. Translations of many religious works from Arabic into Ge’ez are also said to date from this period. Despite later traditions to the contrary, therefore, the living achievements of the Zagwe dynasty clearly show that the period was one of cultural and literary revival in the Christian kingdom.

The ‘Solomonic” Dynasty:
This dynasty was overthrown by Yikunno-Amlak, an Amhara warrior of the central province of what is now Wollo, which constituted the southern part of the Zagwe kingdom. Besides Yikunno-Amlak’s successful revolt against the Zagwe, a number of crucial historical factors brought about this drastic political change in the Christian kingdom.
Ever since the rise of Islam at Mecca, in the 7th century, the Aksumite had been losing their ancient ports and islands to the increasingly, dominant Muslim merchants of the red Sea. From these marker stations on the seaboard, the Muslim merchants operated in the Christian highlands throughout the early mediaeval period. They gradually made a number of local converts to Islam, mainly in the major market villages and along the caravan routes. The right of public worship and free trade of these local Muslim converts was strongly championed by Muslim rulers of Egypt who could always put pressure on the Christian Ethiopian kings through the Patriarchate of Alexandria. Until the tenth century it is very clear that these local Muslims were few in number, and their activities in the Ethiopian region were purely commercial in character. After the tenth century, however, their number began to grow and many Muslim settlements were established. These erstwhile commercial Muslim settlements gradually assumed much political significance. This historical development was particularly true of the hinterland of the port of Zeila which was becoming the most important commercial outlet for the Ethiopian region. By the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries a number of small Muslim sultanates were established along the trade routes from Zeila to Ethiopian interior. The most important among these were the sultanates of Shoa, Ifat, Dawaro, and Bali. Since all these Muslim states were situated to the south and southwest of the central Ethiopian highlands, the Zagwe kingdom was growing more and more isolated and was receiving no benefits from the commercial exploitation of the rich regions of southern Ethiopia. The province of Amhara lay between the seat of Zagwe power in Lasta and these rich areas, and, when Yikunno-Amlak raised his banner of revolt in Amhara, the isolation of the Zagwe rulers became complete.

The dynasty founded by Yikunno-Amlak in 1270 is called the “Solomonic” dynasty. This appellation is a result of an historical process that seems to have started in the early mediaeval period. After the decline of Aksum, the Christian kingdom was surrounded by Muslim and pagan neighbors and was isolated from the rest the Christian world except the Alexandrian Church. During all this period the most important religious book in the possession of the Ethiopians was the Holy Bible which they took much inspiration. Taking accounts probably of the similar beleaguered circumstances, the Ethiopians began to identify themselves with Israel, and to deliberately imitate and adopt many of the institutions of the Old Testament. The most important expression of this attitude is the gradual identification of the Ethiopian ruling house with the family of king Solomon of Israel. This tradition is embodied in the Kebre Negest, compiled in the thirteenth century, which tells the Ethiopic version of the legend of the Queen Sheba. The Solomonic tradition was particularly important after Yikunno-Amlak founded his dynasty. All his descendants adopted the name of the “House of Israel”, and no one who did not belong to this house could accede to the throne in the whole of the late mediaeval period. All the male descendants of Yikunno-Amlak, expect the reigning monarch and his miner sons, were kept under heavy guard on the inaccessible mountain top of Gishen. When a king died, it was form among the detained princes on Mount Gishen that his successor was chosen. This ingenious device gave a high degree of political stability to the mediaeval Christian kingdom, a stability which was essential in that period of intensive struggle with the numerous Muslim sultanates that had been established in the south and the south-eastern part of the Ethiopian region.

Yikunno-Amlak’s grandson, king Amde-Seyon (1314-44), dealt effectively with these Muslim king lets in the area. His quarrel with them was not merely religious. He wishes to control their commercial activities by conquering the areas through which the trade routes passed, and break the age-old isolation of his kingdom. In a series of long wars he conquered Ifat, Dawaro, Bali, Hadya, and the pagan regions to the west and southwest of these centers of Muslim trade. From this time on Christian kingdom maintained its dominant position until the sixteenth century.

Just as in the preceding period of the Zagwe dynasty, the major aspects of the social, cultural, and military organization of the mediaeval Christian kingdom were a direct replica of the Aksumite kingdom. The “Solomonic” kings of mediaeval Ethiopia maintained the imperial traditions of ancient Aksum which remained their cultural and religious centre to the end of the period. Unlike the kings of Aksum, however, they did not build fixed urban centers or capital cities. They administered their huge unwieldy Empire from a series of peripatetic royal camps which nevertheless had the same functions as permanent towns or cities. This arrangement increased the mobility of the royal court, and the effectiveness of the Christian army against local revolts. In a vast empire with numerous big rivers, great mountains and spectacular valleys, without roads and bridges, the task of maintaining sufficient control over their heterogeneous subjects would have otherwise been impossible for the mediaeval kings of Ethiopia.

Monasticism and the Expansion of the Church

It was within this historical milieu that the Church was making its impact felt in the Ethiopian interior. It has been mentioned in the second section above that the nine saints had instituted the earliest monasteries in the Aksumite kingdom. It is apparent that, together with monasteries other monastic communities later established in Tigre and Lasta, these ancient monasteries continued to be the cultural continued to provide educational facilities for the whole of the Ethiopian Christian leaders in mediaeval Amhara and northern Shoa, it is very clear that any ambitious young man had to travel all the way to northern Ethiopia to obtain any serious religious and literary training. When they returned to their native districts, some of these men opened small schools where they taught some of the local children how to read and write. But until the middle of the thirteenth century, it seems that none of these small local schools in the south attained any particular significance beyond providing very elementary educational service for a handful of local children.

In about 1248, however, a young monk, Iyasus-Mo’a (c.1211-1292) came to Lake Hayq and opened a small monastic school at the island church of St. Stephen. Iyasus-Mo’a was born in Dahna, a small district of Lasta bordering on the River Takazze. While still a young boy, he abandoned his home district, traveled to northern Tigre, and joined the famous monastery of Debra Damo. There, he studied for many years under the abbot, Abba Yohanni, who later conferred on him the monastic habits. Iyasus-Mo’a had been a very serious student, and he had particularly distinguished himself as an outstanding calligraphist.

He apparently copied many books while at Debra Damo, and he is renowned for having left a large collection of manuscripts when he died at Hayq in 1292. The school he opened at Hayq becomes very famous as the first center of higher Christian education south of Lasta. Many young men from the surrounding Christian communities joined his school. According to the hagiographic tradition about his life, one of his pupil was the founder of the “Solomonic” dynasty, King Yikunno-Amlak (1270-1285), and there are more reliable indications that the island monastery of Lake Hayq continued to be one of the most important cultural centers of the “Solomonic” kings until the advent of Ahmad Gragn in the first half of the sixteenth century.

Many of Iyasus-Mo’a’s pupils later acquired considerable fame as monastic leaders of the Ethiopian Church. Abba Hiruta-Amlak is believed to have been the founder of the important island monastery of Daga Estifanos on Lake Tana. Many others are said to have founded similar monastic communities in mediaeval Amhara and central Begemdir. One of the most outstanding pupils of Iyasus-Mo’a was Abba Takel-Haymanot of Shoa (d.1313). He apparently joined Iyasua-Mo’a’s school as a middle-aged man with many years of clerical service in Shoa behind him. He spent some nine years with Iyasus-Mo’a who gave him his first serious Christian education. After having been invested with the monastic habits by Iyasus-Mo’a, Takel-Haymanot decided to visit the ancient monastic centers in northern Ethiopia. He went to Debra-Damo and other places in Tigre where he remained for over ten years. In the meantime, he undertook further religious and monastic training and he apparently gained a much deeper insight into the history and ecclesiastical traditions of Ethiopia. He returned to Hayq with many followers after his long sojourn in Tigre. Iyasus-Mo’a now advised him to go back to his native district of Shoa and start a new monastery of Debra Libanos which has become one of the most important religious centers of Christian Ethiopia.

Similar monastic leaders were emerging during the same period in northern Ethiopia, and they established other cultural centres. Abba Ewostatewos (d.1352) deserves particular mention. He was apparently born in Gar’alta, in central Tigre and he studied under his own uncle, Abba Daniel, who was the abbot of Debra Mariam there. He then left Gar’alta and began teaching in Sara’s, in what is today the province of Eritrea. There he was joined by many students who later founded their own monastic centers in the area. Ewostatewos himself was persecuted by his colleagues in the Ethiopian church for insisting on the Biblical custom of the observance of the Sabbath, and he left his country for Egypt, Palestine, Cyprus, and Armenia where he died after fourteen years of self-exile. He was accompanied by some of his pupils on his foreign travels, and some of them managed to return to Ethiopia after his death. Together with their colleagues who had remained in northern Ethiopia, these followers of Ewostatewos effectively organized themselves and they become one of the two monastic houses of the Ethiopian Church. (The other is the House of Takla-Haymanot of Shoa) important cultural and educational centers like Debra Mariam of Qohain, and Dabra Bizan (on the eastern edge of the Hamasen plateau) were later founded by the followers of Abba Ewostatewos. Thus, by the fifteenth century, numerous monastic centers had been established at a number of crucial points from northern Hamasen to Lake Zuway in the south, from the eastern edge of the Ethiopian plateau to beyond Lake Tana in the west. And, just like the ancient center founded by the nine Saints, the new monastic communities provided the only educational facilities available in the Christian highlands.

Development of Christian literature

Each monastic community ran a number of schools depending on its size and its resources. A senior member of the community, specially noted for his learning and for his exemplary character, was given charge of each of these schools. The monasteries of Ethiopia vied among themselves for attracting well-known teachers, and the fame and prestige of a monastery largely depended on the quality of the teachers it employed. The courses given by each school were of course mainly religious and they depended on the level of the school.

There were mainly four general levels of education in these monastic communities. The first level concentrated on training children how to read. They started with the Ethiopic alphabet, and they were drilled into reading a series of increasingly difficult passages. The question of understanding and comprehension was not important at this stage. It was strictly a “Reading” exercise. After sunset, following the evening prayers and the community dinner time, the children of the “reading School” were taught to memorize and recite a series of increasingly difficult prayers. This “memorization exercise” often went on up to midnight.

The next stage was usually one in which courses in church Music were given at different levels. Since the days of Yared, who is believed to have been divinely inspired to compose the first notes of the distinctively Ethiopian church Music in the Sixty century, a meticulous system of courses was organized in this field. It is apparent that this elaborate program of musical studies was at the height of its development in the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries. The Dagwa, the collection of hymns traditionally attributed to Yared , was most probably a cumulative product of many centuries. A major aspect of the Ethiopian Church Music in the ritual dance that always accompanies the liturgical chant. Monneret de Villard, a well-known student of Ethiopian Christian art and the history of the Nile Valley, has suggested that the liturgical dance of the Ethiopians may have originated in ancient Egypt. But in its contemporary manifestations a religious musical performance of the Ethiopian priests is strongly reminiscent of the dancing and the rejoicing of the Levites in front of the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam. 6:2-5). A casual look at the musical instruments used by the priests clearly shows that the Ethiopians have also drawn much inspiration from the Old Testament. The whole atmosphere created during a religious service in Ethiopia evokes the old Biblical scene transmitted in the last chapter of the book of psalms:
Praise him with the sound of the Trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and Dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise him upon the lord cymbals: Praise him upon the high sounding Cymbals.

The third stage of education was usually what can be called the “Poetry School”. It has not been possible to find out the definite origins of this school, nor to ascertain the earliest period of its establishment. But there is no doubt that it had already developed by the fifteenth century, and it constituted one of the advanced level of education in Christian Ethiopia. The most important aim of this school was to increase the level of comprehension of the Church scholar and to make him a master of the Ethiopic Grammar. An essential element of the training here is drilling the student to compose poems of different level. In the evening, the student recited before his master the poems he had composed for the day, and the master commented on the form and the aesthetic qualities of the poems. When the student reached a tolerable degree of excellence the master promoted him to the next level. After all the students had finished reciting their poems, they gathered around the master who composed spontaneously a series of original poems. These were often known for their outstanding qualities in both form and content, qualities which the student vied among themselves to master explained what he meant by the lines of the poem, and this was followed by groups of his students meticulously analyzing with him each of the words of every line to appreciate their grammatical and syntactical place in the poem. This session often went on well beyond midnight every day, and it was the major occasion when the scholars could have the personal guidance of their master. To pass through the eight or nine stages of this “Poetry School” a student often needed more than two years; but if the scholar had the intention of becoming a master himself, he usually spent as many as ten years visiting as many different masters as possible. The “Poetry School” was one of the most prestigious institutions to have gone through, and its inmates could hope for some of the highest positions in both Church and State.

The next and last stage was the mastery of the interpretations of all the canonical books of the Church. The Ethiopian clergy had developed an elaborate system of analytical studies of each of the books of the Old and New Testaments. The Canons of the Church were also studied in the same meticulous fashion with a lot of legal hair-splitting. These studied were so detailed that there was sometimes a special master for each of the Books of the Old and New Testaments, as well as for some of the apocryphal works of the Church.

These were the different stages of education in mediaeval Ethiopia. Although the content of the program was strictly religious, there is no doubt that it solved the essential problem of developing the intellectual faculties of the scholar, and it prepared him for specific roles in the mediaeval Ethiopian community. What is more important is that the graduates of the monastic school system were employed not only in the Church but in all various administrative, judicial, and other department of the State. Nor was it with the limited prospect of leadership in the Church that students went to those schools. Indeed many of the royal princes who later ascended the throne –kings like Dawit (1380 -1412), Zar’a Ya’iqob (1434-68), and Na’od (1494-1508) are known to have attended such schools. Zar’a Ya’iqob and Na’od were particularly noted for their considerable scholarship, and they were the authors of a number of important original compositions in the Ethiopic language. Prolific writers such as King Zar’a Ya’iqob and Abba Giyorgis of Gascha were products of the great monastic schools of the fifteenth century. The literary and artistic achievements of mediaeval Ethiopia were indeed outstanding. Many translations from Arabic, and numerous original Ge’ez works date from that period. A short visit to the Museum of the Institute of Ethiopia studies at Haile Sellassie I University also gives some idea of the works of Christian art of those times. The library collections of the numerous island and mainland monasteries throughout Christian Ethiopia, even today, are a living testimony to the splendor of cultural life in mediaeval Ethiopia.

Copied from: A publication of the EOTC
Written by Professor Sergew Hable Sellassie and Professor Tadesse Tamerat “THE CHURCH OF ETHIOPIA A PANORAMA OF HISTORY AND SPIRITUAL LIFE” Addis Ababa –December 1970.

Persecution and Religious Controversies

After the reign of Zar’a Ya’iqob (1434-68) and his immediate successor Ba’ida-Maryam (1468-1478), the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia had a series of miner kings who were too young to take the affairs of state in their own hands. This brought some of the more ambitious royal officials into temporary prominence as guardians of the Crown but these officials had numerous rivals for power, and the whole kingdom entered into a period of political conflicts and civil war which lasted for about fifty years. The end result of this was the gradual weakening of the Christian army and the slackening of the frontier defense system. In the long struggle with the Muslim kingdom of Adal, this brought about a sudden change in the balance of power between the Church and Islam.

The Wars of Ahmad Gragn

With the Ottoman conquest of the whole Near and Middle East, Islam was given a special impetus in the Red Sea area and in the Horn, The Muslim communities of the Ethiopian region began to be more and more aggressive particularly in their relations with the Christian Empire. Many Turkish and Arab mercenaries came over from across the Red Sea, better equipped with the superior arms of the Ottoman Empire. The Muslim invasion of the Ethiopian highlands in the beginning of the sixteenth century was thus a tremendous success. The leader of the Muslim forces during this conflict was Imam Ahmad Ibn Ibrahim or Gragn, as he is known in Ethiopian Chronicles. His Chronicle, entitled Futuh al-Habasha (meaning “The Conquest of the Abyssinians”), relates how the Muslim invasion was particularly aimed at destroying the Church in the Ethiopian highlands. As the center of the mediaeval Christian culture of Ethiopia and as the place where the kings also kept their fabulous treasures, the Church was attacked by the Muslim forces with particular fury. Dazzled by the riches of the churches and monasteries, the Muslim troops burnt and looted for a period of about fifteen years, and almost completely destroyed the mediaeval heritage of Christian Ethiopia. The following passage is a vivid description of how the island monastery of Hayq was sacked, and it characterizes the attitude of the Muslim army throughout the period of their success between 1531 and 1543:
“They carried off the gold… there were crucifixes of gold in great quantity, books with cases and bindings of gold, and countless idols of gold; each Muslim took 300 ounces; each man had sufficient gold plate to satisfy three men. They also took a vast quantity of cloth and silk… The next morning (the Muslim chief) sent the Imam three rafts loaded with gold, silver and silk; there were only five men on board, two in front and three at the back, the rest of the raft being covered with riches though it could have carried 150 persons. The cargo was unloaded in front of the Imam who marveled at it and forgot the treasure which he had seen before. The rafts returned to the island and were a second time loaded with riches. They came three times, on each occasion loaded; they then returned to the island and the men went on board to return to the mainland. On the following day Ahmad partitioned the spoil; he gave one part to the Arabs and … one to the troops who had gone on the water; the rest he divided among the Muslims”.

It was in this way that the material and spiritual heritage of Mediaeval Ethiopia was destroyed during the wars of Ahmad Gragn. Many of the inhabitants in the Muslim-occupied areas were forced to renounce the Church and adopt Islam. Although some chose to die for their faith, the large majority of the Christian peasants acquiesced to at least a nominal acceptance of Islam.

The Dilemma in Ethiopian Relations with Europe

The Ethiopian kingdom was later restored after the death of Ahmad Gragn (1543) and after the defeat of his army by Emperor Galawdewos (1540-59) who was given effective military assistance by the Portuguese. Relations with the Portuguese had already started towards the end of the fifteenth century, and reciprocal envoys had been exchanged between Lisbon and the Ethiopian court. The Ethiopians were impressed by reports of the technical advances in Europe and wanted to share in this material civilization. From the earliest stages of their contacts with Europe the Ethiopians expressed their desire to receive European technicians and artisans, and the kings were especially interested in firearms. Already in the fifteenth century some isolated European adventures had reached Ethiopia even before the Portuguese, and they had been employed by the kings as masons, craftsmen, and amateur painters. When official relations were later initiated with the Portuguese, it was precisely their interest in the material civilization of Europe which preoccupied the minds of the Ethiopians. Emperor Libna-Dingil requested artists, builders, craftsmen, and men who could make guns for him. He also desired to establish a strong military alliance with the Portuguese. But outside these cultural and diplomatic contacts, a completely different interest preoccupied the Europeans in their self-sufficiency of Ethiopia and the extent of its commitment to the Church of ST. Mark. Thus, almost completely ignorant of the history and the spiritual heritage of the Ethiopian Church, the Portuguese sought to act as the agents of the See of Rome. This caused a lot of unnecessary bloodshed in the first part of the seventeenth century, and led to the expulsion of the Jesuit mission by Emperor Fasiladas in 1632.

The Jesuit experience was very bitter for the Ethiopian Church, and it naturally led to the creation of very strong antipathies towards anything European for a long time. During their short sojourn in Ethiopia, the Jesuits had done a great deal of damage and they had seriously disturbed the spiritual stability of the Ethiopian Church. Thus, immediately after the official expulsion of the Jesuit mission, there was a very long period of intensive doctrinal controversies within the Church which lasted for over two centuries. When these controversies are seen in the right historical perspective, it is very clear that they arose from the need to re-examine the doctrinal positions of the Church and to purify the Church from possible external influences still lingering even after the expulsion of the missionaries. The end result of all this was an intensive movement of literary and intellectual revival in the kingdom of Gondar. What is most impressive is that, despite the decline of the monarchy and the disintegration of the State into a number of regional entities during the so-called Era of the Princes, the Ethiopian Church preserved its basic unity. And from the middle of the nineteenth century, when the monarchy started to revive once again, the Church resumed its historic role as the most important unifying factor in Christian Ethiopia.

Copied from: A publication of the EOTC
Written by Professor Sergew Hable Sellassie and Professor Tadesse Tamerat “THE CHURCH OF ETHIOPIA A PANORAMA OF HISTORY AND SPIRITUAL LIFE” Addis Ababa –December 1970.

The Period of Reorganisation

By Professor Sergew Hable Selassie

Tewodros and his religious policy 1855-1868

After the death of Abuna Qerillos about 1828, Ethiopia remained without a bishop until the appointment of Abuna Salama in 1841. The new bishop was a young, energetic man who had attended a Protestant college in Cairo. In Ethiopia, many problems awaited the young prelate, the chief among them being the political instability of the country, widespread doctrinal controversies within the Church and the activities of foreign missionaries. Abuna Salama demonstrated ability as an administrator of Church affairs and considerable political skill during a very trying period, while endeavoring to solve as many of the problems as he could with caution and wisdom.
His arrival in Ethiopia occurred during the period of Ethiopian history known as the Era of the Princes, when strong central government had broken down and the Emperors were puppets in the hands of ambitious nobles vying for power. During this difficult time, when the various provinces of the Empire were ruled by different local lords, the Orthodox Church had remained one of the few unifying forces in the country. Unfortunately the Church herself was divided by a doctrinal controversy over the Nature of Christ, which flourished throughout the Alexandrian teaching on this matter and to persuade Church scholars to accept it and renounce erroneous beliefs. With regard to the problems posed by foreign missionaries, he assigned to them certain spheres of influences where they could teach but not baptize; he required new converts to be baptized by Orthodox priests.

Abuna Salama was, of course, unable to restore political unity to Ethiopia; this was the task undertaken by the Emperor Tewodros II. His reign inaugurated a new era in the history of Ethiopia, in both a political and a religious sense. After his coronation by Abuna Salama in 1855, he set out to reunite the divided Kingdom and to restore Ethiopia to her ancient glory. A fundamental aim of his policy was to put an end to religious controversy in the Empire and to consolidate the Orthodox Faith. To this end, in 1855, he imposed the Tewahido doctrine, propagated by Abuna Salama, as the sole doctrine to be allowed in Ethiopia.

At that time there existed three groups of doctrinal affinities which had been inherited form the past. The Tewahido doctrine was and remains the official teaching of the Church of Ethiopia. It confesses the unity of two natures, divine and human, in the person of Christ, without confusion and without separation: -- hence the name Tewahido which means “unity”. The second group was called Qebat, signifying “unction”, because it laid stress upon the anointing of Christ and not upon the incarnation of the Son. The third group was known as Tsegga Lej (Son of Grace) and supported the teaching of the “Three Births”: eternal birth of the Son from the Father, genetic birth of the Son from the Virgin Mary and birth from the Holy Ghost after the incarnation of Jesus. The Emperor Tewodros forbade the teachings of the Qebat and Tsegga Lej sects and all Christians were called upon to profess the Tewahido teaching. Any who failed to abide by this decree were severely punished, thus his order was generally accepted and theological disputation gradually died out.

At the beginning of his reign, Tewodros showed deep religious faith and strict adherence to Christian moral standards. He and his wife received Holy Communion and in his conduct he became an example to all the Christians in the Empire. Many followed his example and began to lead a good Christian life. In the sphere of missionaries’ work, Tewodros strongly supported the monks who devoted their lives to evangelizing the pagan inhabitants of the country. Many people including numerous Moslems, became voluntary converts to Christianity.

Tewodros maintained a good relation with the Church until he initiated certain innovations in church organization. In order to carry out his far-reaching policies of modernization and reform, Tewodros desperately needed finance. He planned to raise money from the church by restricting the number of clergy allowed to serve in each church to two priests and three deacons. The remaining clergy would have to work and pay taxes like other people and some church lands would be given to ordinary farmers, who would pay taxes on them. This proposal was unacceptable to the clergy and these and other actions exposed Tewodros to harsh criticism, so much so that the people in general supported the clergy against him. In the latter part of his reign, Tewodros’ personality and conduct changed radically; he lost the high moral standards which had characterized the early part of his reign and grew harsh and bitter. Finally he became completely alienated from both the clergy and the ordinary people and Abuna Salama himself was imprisoned at Maqdala, where he died in 1867.

The expansion of the church (1872-1913)

In the last years of the 19th century the church of Ethiopia was engaged in consolidation and missionary activities. In the work of consolidation the policy applied was the same as in the first part of Tewodros’ reign. Doctrinal differences had once again become a subject of discussion in certain places. Now Emperor Yohannes and king Menelik of Shoa called a council at Boru Meda, in Wollo, in 1878 in which many learned scholars of the church participated. By coincidence there was no bishop in Ethiopia at the time, but this was not considered an impediment to the holding of the council. The Emperor Yohannes had already acquired a letter from the Patriarch of Alexandria in which the official teaching of the church formulated, and this was accepted as binding by the clergy. The Boru Meda council was the last of its kind. No such meeting has been held since. The three Births teaching which held sway in many places was rejected and condemned as a heretical teaching; the followers of this sect were called upon to embrace the decision of the council.

The council was summoned in order to promote harmony and peace within the church itself and thus to facilitate the missionary activities of the church. The attention of the church was concentrated on the Wollo region for historical reasons. The whole of Wollo had been a Christian centre with many historic churches and monasteries before the sixteenth century. In that century, however, the population was Islamaized by Ahmed Gragn. Later on, when the Christian religion was restored, the population remained predominantly Moslem. Both the Emperor Yohannes and Menelik II, then the king of Shoa, encouraged the church to carry on missionary work in this region. They themselves took an active role by becoming the godfathers of prominent Moslem rulers of Wollo. The Emperor Yohannes baptized Mohamed Ali of Ras, and king Menelik sponsored Abba Matthew, who later on was called Dejjazmach Hail-Mariam. The conversion of their leaders had far-reaching effects on the population of the region. Many followed the example of their leaders and embraced Christianity. Aleka Akale Wold, a well-known scholar, was selected to assist in the consolidation of the Christian church in Wollo. He founded a centre of learning at Boru Meda itself. Boru Meda Sellassie became renowned a centre of higher church education and students flocked there from all over the country.

In southern, western and eastern Ethiopia, missionary work was encouraged by Menelik II and many churches were built in different areas, which had become cut off from the Christian heartland of Ethiopia during the period of conflict. The re-integration into the empire of these regions by Menelik revealed the ruins of many churches in addition to numerous ecclesiastical objects, evidence that these regions were once Christian and therefore Menelik insisted that they should be evangelized. A number of witness have described the joy with which the arrival of fellow-Christians was received by scattered communities which had endeavoured to cling to Christianity, although without priests and without the sacraments, since their separation from the northern provinces.

Autonomy 1926-1951

In order to strengthen the organization of the church and facilitate evangelistic activities, the Emperor Yohannes succeeded in obtaining the appointment of four bishops from Alexandria. This was the first occasion that more than one bishop had been appointed to the Ethiopian church since the reign of Zar’a Ya’iqob (1434-1468), who had the privilege of acquiring no less than three bishops simultaneously. In 1881, the new bishops arrived in Ethiopia. They were Abuna Petros, the metropolitan, and Abuna Mattewos, Abuna Lukas and Abuna Yohannes. Abuna Petros remained close to the Emperor, while Abuna Mattewos was sent to Menelik II Shoa, Abuna Lukas to Gojjam and Abuna Yohaness to Simen-Begemder, where his career was cut short by his untimely death.

At the down of the 20th century, a new wave of independence arose in the Ethiopian church. Ethiopians recognized the futility of the apocryphal canon which prevented them from being prelates in their own country. Moreover it was strongly felt that reform and modernization of the church could not be achieved by a foreign hierarchy out of touch with national life and problems. The common consensus was that the church must be freed from the hegemony of the Coptic Church. Matters came to a head in 1926 with the death of Abuna Mattewos, the last of four Bishops who had been appointed in 1881. The Ethiopian Church approached the Coptic Patriarch with a request that authority should be delegated to the new metropolitan to consecrate bishops. A lengthy exchange of views took place between officials of the Coptic Church and the Ethiopian Government. Finally in 1929, a new Coptic Abuna, Qerillos, was appointed and it was agreed that five Ethiopian monks should be consecrated as diocesan bishops. Five distinguished monks of irreproachable moral integrity were selected by a church assembly in Addis Ababa. They were Abraham, Isaac, Michael, Petros and Sawiros, who died shortly after his appointment.

During the period of Italian occupation (1935-1941) the Ethiopian Church went through a very difficult period. Italian policy was aimed at undermining the immense influence wielded by the church as a factor of Ethiopian unity. Abuna Petros and Abuna Michael paid with their lives for the steadfast patriotism and devotion to the church. The great monks of Debra Libanos were massacred in 1937 and other ecclesiastics suspected of sympathy with the national resistance movement were likewise martyred. The fascist government wished to isolate the Ethiopian Church by serving its ties with Alexandria. Abuna Qerillos refused to be party to this and was sent to Rome; he later retired to Cairo in self-imposed exile. Thus the Church of Ethiopia remained without a Metropolitan, adding a canonical crisis to the moral crisis already prevailing in the country. Taking advantage of this, the fascist regime forced the aged and ailing Bishop Abraham to take the place of Abuna Qerillos and declare the Ethiopian Church independence of Alexandria. The Patriarch of Alexandria then formally excommunicated Bishop Abraham and all who followed him.

Meanwhile the Church in exile was doing marvelous work abroad. The second highest-ranking ecclesiastical dignitary, the Etchege, who was late Patriarch of Ethiopia, Abuna Basilios, had his seat at Jerusalem and from there he dispatched priests to minister to the Christians in exile elsewhere and to convoy to them messages of consolation and hope. With the Emperor, in exile in England, there was a sizable Ethiopian community. To them, Abuna Basilios sent five monks with the necessary sacred objects to administer the Holy Sacraments. He also used to send messages to the patriots of the Ethiopian resistance movement urging them to continue struggle. The qualities of moral authority and integrity evinced by the Etchege during this period helped to create a positive attitude of unity, enthusiasm and purpose among Christians in all walks of life and accelerated the movement towards the independence of the church.

After the liberation of Ethiopia in 1941, Abuna Qerillos returned to Addis Ababa and negotiations were resumed between the Ethiopian Church and the See of St. Mark. The Ethiopians requested the granting of autonomy and the lifting of the ban of excommunication imposed in the time of Bishop Abraham. After very lengthy negotiation, agreement was finally reached in 1948 when the Coptic Synod decreed that the Ethiopian monks might be appointed as bishops during the lifetime of the Metropolitan Qerillos and, upon his death, an Ethiopian Metropolitan might be consecrated. These concessions were accepted by the Ethiopian clergy as providing a solid basis for autonomy. Five learned monks were chosen by the church assembly to be bishops; among them were the late Patriarch of Ethiopia, Abuna Basilios and the acting Patriarch, the Archbishop of Harar, Abuna Theophilos. Upon the death of Abuna Qerillos in 1951, Abuna Basilios was chosen as metropolitan of Ethiopia by clergy and laity and thus the full autonomy of the Ethiopian Church was established. The movement of the autonomy was fully supported by the Ethiopian government from 1926 onwards and His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie I, played an outstanding role in this matter.


The Ethiopian Church became a founding member of the world council of churches in 1948. In the assembly held in Amsterdam in the same year the Church was represented by Abuna Theophilos, Bishop of Harar and by Blattengeta Mersie-Hazen Wolde kirkos. Since then the Ethiopian Church has participated in all spheres of activity of the World Council, e.g. in the central committee, the faith and order commission, the All-Africa Conference of Churches and the Youth Movement. A special committee was set up and entrusted with relations between the World Council and the Ethiopian Church. Through this committee, the Church has been granted aid from the World Council of Churches for two important projects. The first of these is the Kunama project which has as its aim the evangelization of the predominantly pagan Kunama people of western Eritrea. The second project is the establishment of a special school at Zuway in Shoa where dedicated young people receives appropriate training to enable them to undertake missionary work in the countryside. The school is already functioning and has attracted many young people with a sound Christian background.

The Ethiopian Church participated as an observer in the Vatican council and was represented at all its sessions. This was the first occasions that the Ethiopian Church had opened at least indirect dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church.
The Ethiopian Church was represented in the same manner at the Panorthodox Conference at Rhodes in 1961. A dialogue began between Chalcedonians and Anti- Chalcedonians in 1964 at Aarhus in Denmark and was continued in 1967 at Bristol in England. Though no immediate concrete results have been forth coming from these meetings, the establishment of personal contact and exchange of views is an important factor which may have far-reaching effects upon relations between the two groups in the future.
Meanwhile the Ethiopian Church remains desirous of preserving and strengthening its relations with the Oriental Churches. When in 1965, the heads of the Oriental Orthodox Churches met together for the first time since the council of Ephesus in 431 A.D, a new era in Church history was inaugurated. A secretariat of Oriental Orthodox Churches has been established in Addis Ababa.

Copied from: A publication of the EOTC
Written by Professor Sergew Hable Sellassie and Professor Tadesse Tamerat “THE CHURCH OF ETHIOPIA A PANORAMA OF HISTORY AND SPIRITUAL LIFE” Addis Ababa –December 1970.

The Hierarchy

By P.K. Matthew

Tewodros and his religious policy 1855-1868

The hierarchy of the Ethiopia Orthodox Church is directly within the living tradition of the Universal Church. As such it is continuous with the tradition borne witness to in the Scriptures and the hierarchy of the early Church.

Etymologically, the word hierarchy means the rule of priests. It s derived from the Greek HIEREUS (priest) and ARCHE (rule). The term hierarchy never occurs in the New Testament. ARCHE is used in the New Testament never in the sense of ecclesiastical authority. Instead, EXOUSIA (power or authority) is used on a few occasions; such as in relation to the works of Jesus, the Ministry of the Twelve and the Apostolic authority of St. Paul to build the Church (Matt. 9:6; 10:1; Luke 9:1; II Cor. 10:8). The character of EXOUSIA in all these is one of DIACONIA (service or ministry). All those who hold authority in the Church have it from the Lord, who Himself came to ‘serve’. ARCHE may be understood as EXOUSIA which is essentially DIACONIA. Thus hierarchy may receive its correct meaning when it is qualified by ‘ministerial’; and hence, hierarchy is ‘priestly ministry’.

The hierarchy of the Ethiopian Church consists of the traditional three orders of episcopate, presbyterate and diaconate. Of these three orders, the episcopate is most central, and it is by the same that hierarchical continuity is preserved in the Church.


The Episcopal continuity is the primary factor in the apostolic succession of the Church. It signifies the call and commission of the Apostles by our Lord, as well as the transmission of the apostolic faith. The Church is a Church of all ages and the apostolic succession is the link that binds them all to our Lord. Since the Church maintains the Apostolic faith and is ‘sent’ by the Lord to proclaim it (cf. Matt. 28:19-20) the Church itself is Apostolic. The Apostolic ministry of preaching and of administering the sacraments is exercised in the Church. The episcopate is a concrete symbol of the Apostolic succession, and it keeps the Church united on the principle of ministerial leadership.

The Ethiopian hierarchy it traced to the Church of Alexandria. St. Frumentius, a Christian from Syria, as the first missionary to Ethiopia and as closely attached to the Aksumite court during the middle if the fourth century, was consecrated by Patriarch Athanasius of Alexandria as the first bishop (ABUNA) of the Ethiopian Church. Thereafter, the hierarchical head of this Church was always sent from Egypt until recent times.

In the years following the Muslim invasion and persecution, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Ethiopian Church had to pass through a period of crisis which seriously affected the hierarchy. Even before this time, the Jesuits had been working to bring the Ethiopian Church under the jurisdiction of Rome, although with no success. After thses disturbances, the hierarchy was fully restored in 1881, when four Egyptian bishop were sent to Ethiopia; on the death of the last of them, the Church pleaded with the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria for the consecration of men of Ethiopian nationality as bishops for this Church. As a result, five Ethiopian bishops were consecrated in 1928. The recognition of the autonomy of the Church of Ethiopia was marked by the consecration of five other Ethiopian bishops in 1948 (one of whom, the late Abuna Basilios, was made Archbishop in 1951) and was sealed by the installation of Abuna Basilios as the first Patriarch of Ethiopia in 1959 by the Patriarch of Alexandria.

Today the Ethiopian Church is an autocephalous Church in every respect, and it holds that its doctrine and hierarchy belong to the living tradition which has been transmitted to posterity since Apostolic times.

The Hierarchy and the Laity

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church shares with many other Churches the belief that the Royal Priesthood of Israel and the Aarnoic institutional priesthood have become one in Jesus Christ the Eternal High Priest. The people of the New Covenant constituted in Him possess His Royal Priesthood, and are called after the Old Testament fashion, “an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” (I Pet. 2:9). All those who are properly baptized within the Church are members of this priestly community.

After the pattern of Jesus’ baptism and anointing with the Spirit the Church has the washing of regeneration, baptism, and the granting of the Spirit, Chrismation, (cf. Tit. 3:5). Following the ancient custom of the Church, the two are administered together in the Ethiopian Church. As the sealing of the Spirit, Chrismation constitutes the lay ordination into the sacramental and active life of the Church. Thus, every baptized and anointed persons is a member of the Royal Priesthood. The hierarchical orders are special ranks within the Church, the People of God (LAOS TOU THEOU), from which the term laity is derived.

The Apostolic, priestly and ministerial functions of the Royal Priesthood are a means whereby Christ works through His Body in the world. The Church being the Body of Christ acts as one body; and the ministry of the Church, thus, is a ministry acted as one whole. Yet it is recognized that there is a distinction among the members based on the diversity of ministries and gifts of the Spirit, interdependent and interrelated among themselves. They include prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, contribution, aid-giving, merciful acts, apostleship, pastoral work, healing and administration (Rom.12: 6-8; Eph. 4:7-14; I Cor.12:27ff). The gifts are given in variety, but by the same Spirit (I Cor.12: 4ff).

Thus, the hierarchy is not regarded as a separate class, but as a constituent part of the People of God. All ministry in the Church is the ministry of Christ to the Church and through the Church to the world. Because of this, the hierarchy does not function separately but in close union with the laity in the Church’s teaching, worship and government. The laity are given vital roles to play in the life of the Church in many spheres.

Hierarchy and Sacraments

Within the wider ministry of the whole Church the hierarchy is set apart by further ordination. The sacraments as means of grace are conveyed to the faithful by the hierarchy’s ministry of grace. The Ethiopian Church regards Ordination as a sacrament, and insists that for the administration of sacraments there must be validly ordained persons. In Ordination the invisible divine grace is transmitted to the ordained with the visible sign of laying on of hands of the bishop.

By Ordination, one is given the divine grace for the fulfillment of a particular function, and thus one is set apart for that particular priestly ministry. It is to be fulfilled in the Church and is meant as a service to the world. At Ordination, special grace is granted to the ordained by the Holy Spirit, which enable him to appropriate individually the grace granted corporately to the community.
At Ordination the members of the hierarchy take a vow that they will hold fast to the faith and tradition of the Church and will teach the same to the members of the Church.

The single grace of the sacrament of Ordination is distributed among the three grades of episcopate, presbyterate and diaconate. Although by Ordination the ordained is appointed to carry out concretely a function of the Royal Priesthood, it is not simply the apportioning of a place by the Church, but it is a setting apart by Holy Spirit chiefly for the sacramental ministry in the Church and for the wider service with the Church to the world.

The Place of the Hierarchy in the Unity and Order within the Church

The Ethiopian Church recognizes that the inward essential authority of the Church is Christ Himself, who exercise it through the Holy Spirit, the Power of God that dwells within the Church. The institutional authority in the hierarchy is believed to express the activity of Christ. As an institutional organ, the hierarchy is responsible for the organized life of the Church.

An organized ecclesiastical life is expected to foster the exercise of all kinds of EPISCOPE (i.e. oversight, supervision or watchful care, such as parents’ care for children, teacher’s for students, superior’s for inferior and the like), through its hierarchical ministry over the proper functioning of the different Spiritual gifts and services within the Body of Christ. The Ethiopian clergy, through their private conversations, personal contacts and sermons, exhort the people to exercise their Christian duties in the best way possible. After the worship, the priests regularly meet the people in the Church premises to instruct them in faith and tradition. They also act to settle domestic disputes among the member of the Church.

The clergy act in obedience to the bishop of the eparchy within which they are given to serve; and the bishop, besides his administrative responsibilities, exercises pastoral supervision over the ministry of the clergy. Thus, the bishop of an eparchy represents the unity within it.

When a bishop exercises his EPISCOPE, he exercises it in the Church and for the Church. When a priest exercises his ministry in a parish he is helping the bishop under whose supervision he is given charge to see to the order and unity within the local unit of the Church. When a deacon assists the bishop and the priests, he is serving them to carry on ‘their tasks’, and the congregation is always with them in the unity of the Spirit and service.
Such an organized diocesan life is one unit of the organized life is one unit of the organized life of the whole Church, in which the Patriarch is the center. As a bishop is the symbol of unity in each eparchy, the Patriarch is the symbol of unity of the whole Church.

Certain Distinguishing Features of the Ethiopian Hierarchy

Being an autocephalous Church, the Ethiopian Church had its constitution based on the principle of self-government in which the hierarchy and laity share and co-operate. It has always been the official Church of Ethiopia, and has been supported and protected by the Emperors of Ethiopia. All important nomination within the Church are subject to the approval of the Emperor, who is acknowledge as the “Defender of Faith.”
Even though Ethiopia had no national Patriarch until recent times, there bad always been an ETCHEFE besides the ABUNA to hold the administrative authority of the Church. The power of ordination and pastoral supervision belonged to the ABUNA, while the juridical responsibilities were the rights of the ETCHEGE. The ETCHEGE always was an Ethiopian, a celebrate monk, nominated by the Emperor in consultation with the Church. With the emergence of autocephalous status this double office has been vested in the Patriarch.

The three-fold hierarchical structure, namely, episcopate, presbyterate and diaconate, has subdivisions under each of them. Thus episcopate includes Patriarch, Archbishops and Bishops.

The Ethiopian Church has the custom of having numerous priests assisting the Rector of the local Church. In the cities, the Rector of a parish is made by appointment. Honorable titles are given to the Rectors of the important city Churches. It is of interest to mention a few of them. NEBURA’ED is a title given to the Rectors of Aksum Church and of the Church of St. Mary, Addis Alem in the Shoa Province. NEBURA’ED means ‘one upon whom hands are laid’, and it refers to an office of authority. The NEBURA’ED of Aksum is also the governor of the Aksum district. LIKE SIRTANT (chief of the authorities) is the title given to the Rector of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa. There are, besides, other titles such as LIKE LKAWENT (chief of the learned), MELAKE SELAM (angle of peace), MELAKE GENNET (angle of paradise), MELAKE HAIL (angle of power) and others. As a significant feature in rural areas the accession of the chief-priest to his status is not by appointment. One among the local clergy emerges to this status on the basis of character, ability, virtues and personal qualities. Next to the Rector of each church is the GEBES, a priest who is the treasurer, holding authority over the church property


Besides the priests there is a group of deacons in every church assisting the presbyters in worship and administration. Each church has its own Archdeacon as leader among the deacons.

The class called DEBTERA is unique feature of the Ethiopian Church. As an order of singers, it corresponds in some ways to the choirs in other Churches. Although the DEBTERA do not belong to the ordained hierarchy, they are a class by themselves, to be found in every Ethiopian Orthodox Church, closely associated with the priests and deacons in assisting the services of worship. They have their required education and practice in Church music. Their ecclesiastical dance, performed with solemnity and sanctity, makes their role in the Ethiopian Church distinctly unique. With rhythmic movements, steps and musical accompaniment their performance adds to the beauty of the worship and of special festive celebrations.

Until the present day, many of the churches and church institutions have remained the source of basic elementary education for the Ethiopian population, and the hierarchy plays a key role in it. Until the introduction of modern education, the teaching ministry was the prerogative of the teacher-priests of the Church.

Most of the clergy have their required education in the ecclesiastical language, Ge’ez. A small percentage of them have received modern education. Ge’ez is a rich language with a large mass of theological, historical and biblical literature, with which many doctors of the Ethiopian Church are well acquainted.

Copied from: A publication of the EOTC
Written by Professor Sergew Hable Sellassie and Professor Tadesse Tamerat “THE CHURCH OF ETHIOPIA A PANORAMA OF HISTORY AND SPIRITUAL LIFE” Addis Ababa –December 1970.

Worship in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church

Professor Sergew Hable Sellassie and Belaynesh Mikael

The Church of Ethiopia is one of the few Churches of Christendom where the worship of the primitive church has been preserved. This is largely due to the geographical position of Ethiopia and to the historical developments that led to her virtual isolation from the rest of the Christian world from the seventh century, as a result of which Ethiopia retained the form of worship she had received in the 4th century. It is of interest to consider this subject in broad outline.

1.The Place of Worship

The noted church historian Rufimus has provided us with information that confirms the existence of prayer houses in Ethiopia before the introduction of Christianity as the official religion. In the story of St. Frumentius and his brother Aedesius he tells us that “while they lives there and Frumentius held the reins of government in his hands, God stirred up his heart and he began to search out with care those of the Roman merchants who were Christians and to give them grate influence and to urge them to establish in various places conventicles to which they might resort for prayer in the Roman manner.”

According to traditional sources, after the official acceptance of Christianity as the state religion, the Emperor Ezana, the first Christian ruler of Ethiopia, built a magnificent church at Aksum. It was supported by thirty-two monolithic columns and had no arches. During the early Christian period old temples of pagan times were transformed into churches. The old Sabaean temple at Yeha was made into a church by Abba Afse, one of the Nine Saints who came to Aksum from the Roman Empire in the 5th century. Recent archaeological excavation of the eastern corner of this building brought to light Christian objects, such as bells and crosses, of grate antiquity. The same can be said of the church of Abba Pantalewon, in a suburb of Aksum. The site was once center of pagan worship; both Sabaean and Greek gods were worshipped there. Abba Pantalewon either transformed the ancient temple into church or else built a church upon the ruins of the temple.

Excavations in the area of the old Aksumite kingdom, at Adulis and Hawlti-Melazo, have brought to light the ruins of basilicas of Syrian type. This may be due to the influence of the Nine Saints, since the majority of them are believed to have been of Syrian origin. An existing example of the basilica type of church is found at the ancient monastery of Debra Damo. According to hagiographical sources, the church was built by the Emperor Gebre Maskal, son of Caleb, in the 6th century. During the same period a remarkable church was built at Sana’a by Abreha, the Ethiopian viceroy of Yemen. This church was much admired by Arab writers. It was known as al-qalis, a corruption of Ekklesia. Abreha brought architects both from Aksum and Byzantium and they designed a church that was marvel of architectural skill, combining the basilicas and Byzantine styles.

In the mediaeval period the basilica from was retained, but underwent modification in certain cases. The amazing monolithic churches of Lalibela are developments of this period. The churches of Medhane Alem (Saviour of the World) and Gennet Mariam (Paradise of Mary) are decorated by external columns of a type completely new in the architectural history of Ethiopia. The interiors have many features in common with the old church of Aksum. The external façade of Bete Emmanuel (Church of Emmanuel) is reminiscent of Aksumite style of alternate recessions and projections. The churches of Lalibela, hewn as they are out of the living rock, may be said to be among the architectural wonders of the Christian world. The interiors are hollowed out and decoratively and ingeniously carved, with varieties of vaulted roofs and complex arches. Each church is constructed in a different style.

In the late mediaeval period, ecclesiastical architecture underwent a radical change. Churches of octagonal or circular shape were constructed. It seems probable that these forms were increasingly adopted as Ethiopian power moved southwards and the churches acquired the form of the round dwellings common in the south. This type of circular or octagonal church is abundant in the southern and western areas where Christianity was introduced later. The basilica from has been retained to a large extent in northern Ethiopia.

The internal structure of the circular and octagonal churches consists of three concentric rings. The innermost part is the Maqdes or Sanctuary, also know as the Qeddusa Queddusan or Holy of Holies, where the Tabot or Ark rests; only priests and deacons have access to it. The Tabot represents the Ark of the Covenant, believed to have been brought to Ethiopia by Menelik I, the son of King Solomon. It rests upon the Menbir, which may be said to correspond to the alter in other Churches. The sanctity of a church depends upon the presence of the Tabot and without it services cannot be held. The blessing of the Tabot by the Abuna constitutes the consecration of the church. On occasions when the Tabot is removed from the church and carried in processions as on the Feast of the Epiphany it is covered with a cloth and everyone bows or prostrates himself to it on passing. The second chamber is the Keddist, which is reserved for communicants, who receive the Sacrament, the women segregated from the men. Only those who feel pure, have fasted regularly and have conducted themselves blamelessly receive Communion. For this reason communicants are usually babes-in-arms, infants and the very old. The third division is the outer ambulatory which is known as the Qene Mahelet (the place of the cantors). The Qene Mahelet is divided into three sections by curtains. The western part is occupied by the Debteras or cantors who sing hymns and praise God to the accompaniment of musical instruments, drums, prayer-sticks an sistra. One part of the ambulatory is reserved for women only and one part for men. There are three doors, to the east, north and south. The latter is used as the only entrance by women. The other two entrances are used exclusively by men; men may also sometimes use the women’s entrance, but women never use the men’s entrance. Those of the congregation who feel particularly unclean ritually stand in the churchyard throughout the service. Often there are as many people, if not more, in the churchyard as in the church. It should be noted that the church precincts and the surrounding wall are considered sacred, therefore those who remain outside the church during the service are considered to have attended church.

A few modern city churches are built in the traditional Alexandrine cruciform. They contain pews for the congregation. It is customary in such churches for men and women to sit on separate sides of the church. The traditional Ethiopian church contains no seats, however. Rush mats may be spread upon the floor and it is customary to remove one’s shoes before entering the church. As the services are lengthy, prayer-sticks, known as Makomiya, are provided fot the Debteras and for elderly or important members of the congregation to lean upon. However the truly devout may refuse to make use of a prayer-stick during the service and a few exceptionally pious people may try to mortify the flesh by standing upon one leg only throughout the service.

2. The Times of Worship

Church Services

One can distinguish two types of church service in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, indoor and outdoor. The former is conducted in the Holy of Holies by priests and deacons. A minimum of five persons, two priests and three deacons, is required to celebrate Mass. In certain monasteries a minimum of seven persons is still required. The celebrants are required to abstain from food for at least twelve hours in advance. The sacramental bread and wine are prepared by one of the deacons in the compound of the churchyard, in a small building known as the Bethlehem. The times of the services depend upon fasting periods and holy days. During fasting periods the service commences at 1 p.m. In some churches and monasteries it may begin as late as 3 p.m. The normal duration of a service is about two hours, but it may be lengthened or shortened upon occasions. At Easter, Mass is celebrated at 1 a.m. and at Christmas about 4 a.m. is the usual hour. On Sundays the service usually commences at 6 a.m., although it may start earlier and in some monasteries and churches the usual hour is 5 a.m. In some churches in Addis Ababa, the service now beings at 7 a.m. and at 8 a.m. on Saturdays except on Holy Saturday when the service is conducted at midday.

The times of the outdoor services, conducted by priests and Debteras also vary. On Sundays the service begins at 7 a.m. until replaced by the service in the Holy of Holies. During fasting seasons, the service commences at 6 a.m. and continues until the beginning of Mass at 1 p.m. There is also a short service towards the end of the Mass which consists mainly of the reciting of Qene, or verse which is epic in type.

3. The Types of Worship

  • Liturgy
  • The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has retained the ancient service of the Early Church and still uses the Mass of the Catechumens. In the Early Church, adults receiving instruction in the Christian Faith would attend the Mass until the reading of the Gospel and the sermon. Then the deacon would dismiss the Catechumens and they would leave the church. The mass is still retained in the Ethiopian Church, though there are no longer Catechumens under preparation for baptism.

    The real liturgy begins after the point in the service marking the departure of those not yet baptized. The church of Ethiopia has fourteen Anaphoras, a unique phenomenon in any Christian Church. Each is used on special occasions to mark the observance of a particular holy day. Through the Anaphoras differ in length and content, they have common characteristics. They stress the Incarnations, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. In principle the Mass is conducted in Ge’ez, the ancient classical and liturgical language of Ethiopia. Today, however, the readings and certain portions of the liturgy are in the vernacular, Amharic. The congregation. Both men and women may join in the singing Choirs of the western type are unknown in the Ethiopian Church.

  • Se’atat, the Horologium
  • There are two types of Horologium, for day and for night. The Horologium was composed by a distinguished 15t Century scholar, Abba Giyorgis of Gascha; during the ensuing century it was gradually enriched by additional hymns and prayers. In big churches it is usual monks. Priests and deacons to conduct the Se’atat in the northern part of the ambulatory, while the Debteras are conducting a different service.

  • Mahelet
  • Cantillation is an integral part of worship in the church of Ethiopia. Hymns are sung in different modes and Rhythms. The Deggua or hymnary is attributed to Saint Yared, a scholar who lived in Aksum in the 6th century. During the course of the centuries. Hymns have been added by various composers. The cantors or choristers are the Debteras. On joyful occasions they chant and sing to the accompaniment of musical instruments. Hand-clapping an rhythmical movement of dignified and solemn kind. The rhythmic bet is marked by the movement of the prayer-sticks carried by the Debteras. During periods of mourning the chanting is in a melancholic mode and is not accompanied by hand-clapping or rhythmic movements. During Lent, the use of the drum is forbidden except on Palm Sunday. From the beginning of Lent until Palm Sunday, a special hymn is sung called Tsome Deggua. Throughout Holy Week, special prayers are said, accompanied by prostration, culminating on Good Friday. During this week extensive reading from the Bible, works of the Church Fathers and Lives of the Saints take place.

    4. Manner of Prayer

    The Fetha Negest, or Law of the Kings, reminds us that prayer is man’s way of communicating with Almighty God. In prayer, man thanks God, praises Him and recognizes His domain, confessing hid sin and seeking on his part the way of pleasing Him. The following precepts are laid down for one who prays. Firstly, he should stand up, as enjoined on the words of the Lord; “When you rise up for prayer; you shall stand up.” Secondly, he should gird himself with girdle; as the Lord has said “Let your loins be girt.” Thirdly, he should turn towards the east, for that is the direction from which Christ will appear in His second coming. Fourthly he should make the sign of the cross from the forehead downward and from left to right. Fifthly he should recite the prayer in fear and trembling. Sixthly he should kneel down and prostrate himself, since the gospel tells us that on the night of his passion, our lord prayed prostrating himself and kneeling.

    Prostration plays an important part in worship in the Ethiopian church. The faithful are enjoined to begin prayer by prostrating themselves once or thrice and to do the same at the end of prayer. At certain times kneeling or genuflection is substituted for complete prostration, i.e. on Sundays, the days of Pentecost, the feast days of our lord and our lady, and also after receiving the Eucharist. On good Friday, the faithful spend the whole day at church, usually in the courtyard, performing the act of prostration many hundreds of times, to the limits of their physical strength.

    5. Times of prayer

    The faithful should pray seven times each day. First upon arising from bed in the morning and before beginning work. Secondly at the third hour; thirdly, at the sixth hour; fourthly, at the ninth hour; fifthly, the evening prayer; sixthly, the prayer before sleep and lastly, the midnight prayer.

    The morning and evening prayers should be said in church, especially on Saturdays and Sundays. Anyone who omits prayer, unless he is ill, should be cut off from the congregation of the faithful. Anyone who is sick should attend church if he possibly can, for he may be healed. The other prayers should be said at home. When the hour for prayer arrives and one of the faithful finds himself in a place where he cannot pray, he should pray mentally.

    6. Fasting

    In the Fetha Negest* fasting is defined as follows: “ Fasting is abstinence from food, and is observed by man at certain times determined by law, to attain forgiveness of sins and much reward, obeying thus the one who fixed the law. Fasting (also) serves to weaken the force of concupiscence so that (the body) may obey the rational soul.”
    Fasting is strictly observed by all faithful members of the church. There are approximately 250 fast days in the year, although not all of these are compulsory for everyone. The average person may fast about 180 days in the year. There are seven official fasting periods for Ethiopian Christians:

    1. All Wednesday and Fridays, except for the 50 days after Easter.
    2. The Lenten fast of 55 days.
    3. The Nineveh fast of 3 days.
    4. The vigils, or gahad of Christmas and epiphany.
    5. The fast of the apostles; this varies in length, depending upon the date of Easter, and maybe a minimum of 14 days and maximum of 44. This fast commemorates St. peter and St. Paul.
    6. The fast of the prophets of 43 days.
    7. The fast of the assumption, 15 days in august.

    Of these fasts, the fast of the apostles and the fast of the prophets are compulsory for clergy only, although they are also observed by many of the faithful. All the other fasts are considered obligatory for all devout Christians, except children under seven. During fasting periods, Christians abstain from meat and all animal products: meat, milk, butter and eggs. No food or drink is taken before noon, at the earliest: even then only a simple repast should be taken. Pregnant women, the seriously sick and travelers are exempted from fasting. In Holy Week no food is taken before 1 p.m. or later. The really devout fast completely from Good Friday till Easter Sunday, while others eat only the evening meal on these days. The Lenten fast is traditionally broken by a joyful feast that takes place after midnight mass, at about 3 a.m., or the first cock- crow or Easter Sunday morn.

    7. Holidays or feasts

    Nine major and nine minor holy days are observed in the church of Ethiopia. All are connected with events in the life of Christ.

    Major Holidays

    1. The Incarnation
    2. The Birth of Christ
    3. Epiphany
    4. Hosanna (palm Sunday)
    5. Crucifixion
    6. Easter
    7. Debra Tabor ( feast of mount tabor)
    8. The Ascension
    9. Pentecost

    Minor Holidays

    1. Sebkat (first Sunday in advent)
    2. Berhan (second Sunday in advent)
    3. Nolawi (third Sunday in advent)
    4. Christmas Eve
    5. Gizret (Circumcision)
    6. Birth of Simon
    7. Debra Zeit (Feast of the Mount of Olives) the transfiguration)
    8. Kana Zegalila (The Miracle of Kana)
    9. Maskal (The Invention of the True Cross)

    Other feast days include one for each of the twelve Apostles. The martyrs, St. George, St. Stephen and St. John the Baptist are also commemorated. Other important holy days are those in commemoration of St. Michael and St. Mary and of the grate religious reformer, the Emperor Zar’a Ya’iqob. No less than thirty-three holy days are devoted to St. Mary. An indication of the special veneration attached to the Blessed Virgin in Ethiopia. A feature of feast days in the Ethiopian Church is that many of them are commemorated monthly and not only annually. As in the rest of the Christian world Sunday is observed as a day of rest. In former times Saturday, the Biblical Sabbath, was also observed. On holy days believers are expected to refrain form heavy labor and manual tasks, such as farming, forging metal and weaving. Various transactions are permitted, however. On these days ot os customary to carry out charitable and philanthropic acts, to visit the sick or those in prison and to arrange reconciliation between those who have quarreled. Sundays and other holy days are also occasions of social events, weddings, dancing and sport.

    Sources: A publication of the EOTC Written by Professor Sergew Hable Sellassie and Professor Tadesse Tamerat “THE CHURCH OF ETHIOPIA A PANORAMA OF HISTORY AND SPIRITUAL LIFE” Addis Ababa –December 1970.

The Role of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Literature and Art

By Adamu Amare and Belaynesh Mikael

Ethiopic or Ge’ez Literature

Ethiopia occupies a unique place among African countries south of the Sahara, having evolved her own literary language, Ge’ez, in very early times. A vast body of literary works in Ge’ez grew up from fifth century A.D onwards. Almost all of these works are religious in content. Religion lies at the very core of Ethiopian civilization and the Ethiopian Church has been not only the storehouse of the national culture, but also it propagator, instrumental in shaping and moulding Ethiopian literature and art. Ethiopian men of letters have, in almost all cases, also been men of the Church and many scholars consider that the most distinctive attainment of Ethiopian culture lies in the vast collection of manuscript, compiled and preserved in the monasteries and churches, which embody the national literary tradition. Their subject matter and their style strongly imbued with religious concepts

It is interesting to note that while many of the literary works extant in Ge’ez are based on translations from Greek, Syriac, Coptic and in later times, Arabic originals, in every case the work in question has been not merely translated but, in Professor Ullendorff’s phrase, has been “conveyed into the spirit and ambiance of Christian Abyssinia”. In other words, these works have been submitted to such a process of adaptation and transformed that instead of being mere copies or hackneyed translations they stand as literary works of art in their own right.

The literary achievements of the Aksumite Period c. 5th- 7th centuries A.D

The major literary achievement of this period was the translation of the Holy Scriptures into Ge’ez. This grate undertaking was the work of a group of learned Syrian monks known as the Nine Saints who came to Ethiopia in the fifth century to escape the Byzantine persecution of the Monophysites. The translation of the Old Testament was rendered from the Lucianic recension current in Antioch at that time. The Ethiopic Bible contains 81 Books; 46 of these comprise the Old Testament and 35 are found in the New Testament. A number of these Books are apocryphal or deuterocanonical, such as the Ascension of Isaiah, Jubilees, Enoch, the Paralipomena of Baruch. Noah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Maccabces, Moses and Tobit. They are of intrinsic importance to scholars either because no other complete version of the text is extant in any language other than Ge’ez or because the Ge’ez version is authoritative.

Perhaps the most important of these apocryphal works is the Book of Enoch, which has been preserved in Ge’ez alone. The name Enoch signifies “teaching” or “dedication” and Enoch is one of the grate Biblical characters, the first-born son of Cain. The Book of Enoch was lost for centuries to western scholars who knew it only because it is mentioned in the Epistle of St. Jude, until, in 1773, James Bruce brought three complete manuscripts to Europe. This grate prophetic work mat be summarized in five parts as follows:

  1. The laws governing the heavenly bodies.
  2. An account in the form of visions of the history of the world until the Last Judgement and the coming of the Messianic Kingdom with its center at the New Jerusalem.
  3. The establishment of a temporary kingdom that heralds the approach of the Last Judgement.
  4. A vision of Enoch and other and his journeys through earth and heaven.
  5. This section contains the Similitude’s and describes the coming of the Messiah as the judge of all mankind.

Other early Ge’ez works of significance which have been mentioned in a previous chapter include the famous work known as Qerlos, the grate collection of Christological writings which opens with the treatise by St. Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, known as Haimanot Rete’et, or De Recta Fide. On this book is based the teaching of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Another work translated at this period was the Ascetic Rules of Pachomius, which established the rules governing monastic life in Ethiopia. It is interesting to note that the same period saw the translation of a secular work, the Physiologus, the well-know work of natural history, which was very popular in Europe during the Middle Ages.

The Solomonic Restoration

After the decline of the Aksumite Empire, towards the middle of the eight-century, Ethiopia entered a tenebrous period from which literary documents have not survived (or yet discovered). A grate period of cultural renaissance followed upon the restoration of the Solomonic dynasty about 1270, however, and the fourteenth century was the beginning of what has been termed the “Golden Age” of Ethiopian Literature. Although Ge’ez was no longer a living language it retained its primordial role as an ecclesiastical and literary language, like Latin in the western Church. In addition to works of a theological or dogmatical nature we find the beginning of the grate series of Royal Chronicles of Ethiopia with the reign of Amda-Seyone (1314-44). The chronicle of Amda-Seyone is an outstanding work. The vivid and compelling account of Amda-Seyone’s struggles against the Moslems was certainly the work of an eye-witness and denotes a new phase of Ge’ez literature. To the same period dates the earliest known Amharic text; a collection of solders songs celebrating the victories of Amda-Seyone. From this time onwards royal chronicles became a regular feature of the Ge’ez literary development in Christian Ethiopia.

This period also saw the composition of the Kebre Negest or Glory of the Kings which is perhaps the most significant work of Ethiopian literature. It was composed by the Nebura’ed Yeshaq of Aksum and combines history, allegory and symbolism in its re-creation of the story of the Queen Sheba, King Solomon and their son, Menelik I of Ethiopia. The grate achievement of the author, Yeshaq, lies in the way he has gathered together and syncretized all the myriad strands of this grate cycle of legends and stories which is woven into the very fabric of Ethiopian life.

Other works of this period include the Matshafa Se’atat or Horologium, a very popular work attributed to Abba Giyorgis of Gascha. The Weddase Mariam or Praises of Mary is, as the name implies, a collection of hymns and laudations dedicated to Our Lady and ordered according to the days of the week. It is ascribed to Abba Salawa, who also engaged in a revision of the text of the Bible.

A new genre of literature which appeared was devoted to the lives of the saints and martyrs. Well-known works of this nature are the Gadle Sama’etat or Acts of the Martyrs and the Gadle Hawaryat, or Acts of the Apostles. But the most important of these is the Senkessar or Synaxarium which has been translated by Sir E.A. Wallis Budge under the title The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church. This is a compilation of the lives of the saints arranged in order of their feast-days throughout the year. In general these works are devoted to the struggle and suffering endured by the saints and martyrs in defense of their faith. The torments inflicted upon them are described as well as their patience in affliction, their working of miracles, their martyrdom and, after death, their receiving of the Crown of Glory. Mediaeval Ethiopian literature is particularly rich in hagiographies. The lives of well-known saints, such as Saint Anthony and Saint George enjoyed grate popularity and the lives of such famous Ethiopian Saints as St. Tekla Haimanot and Gabra Manfas Keddus provide important source books for Ethiopian Studies. In may manuscripts the whole volume is occupied with the life of a single saint and the miracles wrought by him both in his lifetime and after his death. Such manuscript often contain beautiful illustrations.

Two important original works appeared in the early fifteenth century. The first of these was the Fekkare Iyasus or the Explication of Jesus, an interesting work, messianic in tone and foretelling the coming of a king called Theodore (Tewodros) who would restore peace to suffering humanity. This prophecy became of considerable importance in Ethiopia until the middle of the nineteenth century when King Theodore II chose this throne name, apparently because of its associations with the prophecy. Another philosophical work was the Mystery of Heaven and Earth, setting forth the eternal struggle between good and evil.

The reign of the Emperor Zar’a Ya’iqob (1434-1468) was notable for the development of grate literary activity. Zar’a Ya’iqob himself was a zealous reformer and wrote several important works, such as the Matshafa Berhan, or Book of Light and the Matshafa Milad or Book of Nativity. The king sought to refute heresies which had taken root and to attack the corruption of religious practices. Other works which have been attributed to him include the hymn collection entitled the Arganona Maryam Dingle or Organ of the Virgin Mary and the Egziabeher nagsa or God has reigned. Numerous edifying homilies were produced during this period, the most famous of these is the collection entitled Retu’a Haimanot (True Orthodoxy) ascribed to St. John Chrysostom.

The beginning of the sixteenth century saw many changes in Ethiopia. The Moslem invasions caused grate destruction to the nation’s Christian heritage. Many churches and monasteries were destroyed together with their collections of manuscripts. However enough survived to preserve national traditions. An interesting literary figure of this period was a certain Embakom (Habakkuk) an Arab converts to Christianity who entered the celebrated monastery of Debra Libanos. He was the author of the Ankasa Amin or Gate of Faith and of a number of translations from Arabic. A series of important literary works was inspired at this period by the need for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to define her position vis-à-vis the Roman Catholic influence. The best known of these is the Confessio Claudii, or Confessions of the Emperor Claudius (1540-59), a spirited exposition of the Alexandrine Faith. Other works are Sawana Nafs or Refuge of the Soul, Fekkare Malakot, Exposition of the Godhead; and Haymanote Abaw or Faith of the Fathers.

No summary of Ethiopic literature would be complete without mention of the grate work known as the Fetha Negest or Laws of the Kings. The Fetha Negest is indeed the repository of Ethiopian ecclesiastical and civil law and as such a literary work of fundamental national importance. Throughout its history, the Fetha Negest has been closely linked with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which still observes many of its precepts. The Fetha Negest was always faithfully conserved in the monasteries and important churches. There it was available for consultation; there also it was studied and taught by leading ecclesiastical scholars. Even in modern times it has served as the basis or inspiration of much civil and penal law.

Liturgical Works

The liturgy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church serves as the central point for the whole service conducted by priests and deacons. It is written in the form of a litany. Portions or passages of prayers, chants and hymns which are said by priests and deacons differ from those said by the faithful. As the liturgy is sometimes referred to as the “Drama of Salvation”, it is acted out like a drama, telling the life and teachings of Christ, relating the sufferings of the Saints and Martyrs of the Church and using many symbols such as the Cross with its signs, the Censer, the Bell, the Chalice, the Container for the holy water, the washing of hands by the Chief Priest, the bows and the whole elaborate vestment of the priesthood.

In the Ethiopia Orthodox Church, at least two priests and three deacons are required to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. No Mass can be performed after taking meals. Hence, the Holy Eucharist always takes place before and meal. According to the teachings and practices of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the liturgy consists of two main parts, some of which are sung while other portions are read aloud by the priests. The first part of the Mass is known as the Synaxis and includes the reading of the Epistles and Gospel, while the second part is called the Anaphora or Canon. This is the sacramental [art of the Mass which consists of fourteen Anaphoras: of these, the standard one in most common use is the Anaphora of the Twelve Apostles. The first part of the Mass is known as the Synaxis and includes the reading of the Epistles and Gospel, while the second part is called the Anaphora or Canon. This is the sacramental part of the Mass which consists of fourteen Anaphoras: of these, the standard one in most common use is the Anaphora of the Twelve Apostles.

These Anaphoras may by listed as follows:-

  1. The Anaphora of Our Lady Mary
  2. The Anaphora of the Apostles
  3. The Anaphora of Our Lord Jesus Christ
  4. The Anaphora of St. John The Evangelist
  5. The Anaphora of St. Basil
  6. The Anaphora of St. Athanasius
  7. The Anaphora of The Three Hundred and Eight Fathers
  8. The Anaphora of St. Gregory the Armenian
  9. The Anaphora of St. Epiphanius
  10. The Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom
  11. The Anaphora of St. Cyril
  12. The Anaphora of St. James of Serug
  13. The Anaphora of St. Dioscorus
  14. The Anaphora of St. Gregory of Alexandria.

The exact origin of most of the Ethiopic Anaphoras has not been discovered. They first appear in Manuscripts of the 15th century, but were doubtless composed very much earlier. Scholars at one time assumed that all or most of these Anaphoras were translated of foreign liturgies, but recent studies, such as that of Ernst Hammerschmidt, have demonstrated that many of the Anaphora are genuine creation of Ethiopic literature evincing theological thought and liturgical poetry of a high order.

Painting and Manuscript Art

The hall-mark of sophisticated artistic expression of any country can be tested by its capacity to assimilate many elements from foreign source and indigenous these foreign influences. Ethiopian representational art is no exception to this rule. In fact Ethiopian art has syncretized both Oriental and Byzantine artistic traits. Although architecture and metal work belong to representational art, we are here concerned with painting, which is by far the most representative and ubiquitous branch of Ethiopian Art.
With the exception of a few ancient rock carving or drawings which depict both human and animal scenes, Ethiopian painting is virtually wholly ecclesiastic. It is Christianity, the religion of the state, that has determined the scope and purpose of painting in Ethiopia.

Generally speaking, clarity, vividness and the capacity to convey an idea dominate Ethiopian painting more than the desire to give pleasure. Ethiopian artists may even go so far as to distort proportion in order to convey an idea vividly. Such paintings are found in the form of icons, as murals in churches and in manuscripts.

The imaginative church artists have beautified and ornamented these paintings with elaborate color, illumination and elegant design. Priests and monks insert pictures in their books in order to communicate the message to the faithful more vividly and colorfully.

In fact Ethiopian artistic accomplishment is considered by many scholars to have reached its apogee in the illuminated manuscripts produced in the grate monasteries between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. The finest manuscripts are written on goatskin, whereas for ordinary purpose sheepskin is used. The text is usually written in a copiously decorated heavy black script with occasional insertions in red. The pages very in size, but may be very large; the text is written in one, two or three columns according to the size of the manuscript. Lavish illustrations abound, sometimes occupying whole pages and sometimes incorporated into the text. The leaves are put together in quires, usually of ten pages. They are then bound between wooden boards often covered with tooled leather and the completed book may be provided with a leather case with straps that make it convenient for carrying.

Ethiopian paintings are characterized by Biblical themes and figures. Angles, evangelists, saints, martyrs and other biblical personalities are the subjects of painting in Ethiopia. Of all these biblical personalities the Virgin Mary occupies a very prominent place in Ethiopian painting. The extreme veneration attributed to St. Mary finds its expression in many ways. for instance, some pictures depict St. Mary as a delicate and modest young girl, while others show her as a strong, mature women and protector of the Ethiopian people.

The paintings and pictures found in various manuscripts and on the walls in churches, afford the viewer a moral lesson and religious instruction. As they communicate their message clearly they are a way of acquainting the faithful with the teachings of Christ, the history and teachings of the Church, the lives and acts of the Apostles. All this of course is in addition to the purely aesthetic role they fulfill as objects of beauty and decoration.

Sources: A publication of the EOTC

Written by Professor Sergew Hable Sellassie and Professor Tadesse Tamerat “THE CHURCH OF ETHIOPIA A PANORAMA OF HISTORY AND SPIRITUAL LIFE” Addis Ababa –December 1970.

THE Ethiopian Orthodox Church School System

By By Haile Gebriel Dagne

The educational system in Ethiopia has been profoundly molded by the past. Traditional education derives its distinctive character from the unique Christian heritage of the country. Ethiopia is, after all, the only African country to have preserved Christianity as its religion for over a millennium and a half. Moreover, having its own written language and literature it developed from very early days a tradition of ecclesiastical scholarship. The long monastic tradition dates beck to the fifth century and the significant role of monasticism in the diffusion of Christian learning during the mediaeval period has been described in an earlier chapter. In the Christian highlands of Ethiopia, the Church constituted the main guardian of traditional culture and provided the only schools in the land for many centuries. Not only did it preserve its ancient tradition with tenacity and convey it to future generations but it also secured remarkable continuity that has lasted to the present day. For the authority of tradition in present day Ethiopia remains compelling and forceful.

The church school system has been the instrument that has preserved the traditional learning of Ethiopia and conveyed it faithfully to succeeding generations. The priests and Church scholars who are the bearers and propagators of traditional learning have themselves been formed in the church school system that we propose to examine in some detail. For, in spite of the inevitable changes taking place in Ethiopia with the steady expansion of modern secular education in the present century, church schools still play an active part in the Ethiopian educational scene.

The church school system, which is one of the oldest in Christendom, originated in the Aksumite Kingdom with the introduction of Christianity about the 4th century. In the course of the centuries the school system has grown and changed in many ways. With the expansion of the Kingdom and Christianity to the south and southwest, churches and monasteries were founded, which became for centuries important centers of learning.

In their present form the church schools evolved during the “golden age” of the Church from the 13th to the 16th centuries when the literature of the Church had reached its peak. After the great wars, particularly after the 17th century, cultural activities declined. From that time to the present the church schools have undergone little change. The schools have in this period confined their educational activities to glorifying the products of past centuries and conveying these to the coming generation. We shall not discuss here the historical development, but rather the educational activities of the schools, as we know them today in the country.

The church school system has the following divisions:

  1. Nebab Bet (Reading school)
  2. Qedasse Bet (Liturgy school)
  3. higher schools, namely:
  • Zema Bet (Music school)
  • Quene Bet and (Poetry school)
  • Metsehaf Bet which again have different subdivisions. (Literature school)

The Nebab Bet

The Nebab Bet, the Reading School or the “House of Reading” is the first stage of the traditional schools, where primary instruction is given. We find the Nebab Bet in practically all churches and monasteries, in a number of villages and in the compounds of well-to-do landlords. It is a one-teacher school, with instruction given by a priest or layman with church education. It is difficult to estimate the number of Nebab Bet in the country or to evaluate the school population involved. According to the Church Office there are about 15,000 churches in Ethiopia. If each church has one Nebab Bet, which is probably the case, then there are at least 15,000 one-teacher schools.

Each Nebab Bet may have an average of 20 pupils. We may then be justified, with some reservation, in saying that at present the total Nebab bet enrolment might well be 300,000. This does not include pupils receiving instruction in the village schools and in private compounds. Normally children start school between the ages of 5 and 7, when they are traditionally considered ready to learn. Theoretically, both boys and girls and members of all ethnic groups and classes are eligible to enroll in church schools. However, in rural districts, parents generally discouraged the education of girls, since their function is to be housewives, and for this role no formal education is felt to be necessary. Non-Christian families are reluctant to send their children to a Nebab bet because it is closely integrated with the church. Therefore, the Nebab bet and the church schools as a whole can not be considered to serve the entire population, but only members of the Orthodox Christian Church.

The prime function of the Nebab bet is to teach children to read religious books, practically all of which are in Geez. Instruction in the Nebab bet consists almost exclusively of reading. Children master the 231 letters of the Geez syllabary, and are drilled in the art of good reading. Traditionally writing is not taught, since this was not needed in everyday life, unlike reading which is necessary for daily prayers and participating in the church service. In urban centres and roadside towns the Nebab bet has a new function today. The modern schools often accepts more readily in their primary grades those children who can already read and write. This limitation of the enrolment is mainly due to the large number applicants and to an insufficient number of schools, so parents, especially those who do not need the labour of their children, are obliged to send their children to the Nebab bet as a first step to enrolment in a modern government school.

The instruction in the Nebab bet is given in three different stages:

  • Fidel (Alphabets) Instruction
  • Drill in the reading of various religious texts
  • Reading of the Psalm of David

a) Fidel Instruction

The first subject of study for the child is the set of Ge’ez letters, known as the Fidel. In earlier times the letters were written on a roll of parchment, which the pupil carried with him. When he was studying a particular part of the Fidel the student unrolled the parchment and fixed the two-ends of the roll on a wooden stick with a piece of cloth or string. Today children use a printed table of letters, which is glued on a single sheet of cardboard. This is available for about ten cents in every market place in the country, so that the traditional parchment is disappearing.

What is the process of learning the letters? The child, who is led by his teacher or a monitor, touches with a straw each letter from left to right of the table and names the letter in a loud voice. He repeats this for months. Usually the child learns the whole set of letters in sequence by heart, so that in reality he may not be able to distinguish on letter from the other. As a next step to help him distinguish individual letters, he is led to pronounce each letter reading from right to left and then from top to bottom. This process is known as Qutir, i.e. “learning by counting each letter”. The large number of characters (33 in 7 orders) with the differences and irregularities of the related sets are not easily grasped by the beginner. To help the child distinguish the different characteristics of the alphabet another table has been prepared. On such tables the number of the letters and the forms in the seven orders remain the same, but the place of the characters is changed or mixed up, so that the child cannot depend only on his memory and the sequence in which he has memorized the characters. Today the standardized table “Aa, Bu, Gi, Da “ is much used, however, so that the pupil may learn even this by heart and only comes to distinguish the individual characters well after much practice.

When the pupil knows the letters to some extent, he starts to practice reading a text. Generally, the first epistle of St. John is used for the purpose. The child uses four methods to practice reading this text known as Fidel Hawaria or the first Epistle of St. john, first he pronounces every letter of the word pointing at each letter with a straw (Qutir-method). He repeats this pronunciation exercise on the same text several times. When he is able to distinguish the letters he passes to the next drill known as Ge’ez, i.e. the beginning of reading. Here the student attempts to put the letters together in a chanting form and read them as a word. The same process is repeated for several days or even months. When the teacher feels that his pupil has mastered this stage, he leads him to “Wurdnebab”. Now the child practices read learns to take much care over words that must be read to together, the accents, the pauses and the soft or hard pronunciations of the syllables. This step is important, so the pupil spends more time on it. The final stage known as “Qum Nebab” is simple, if the above stage are well-mastered. Here the child practices reading at a very lively pace, but without mistakes. The four steps are repeatedly drilled on the same text, Fidel Hawaria. The exercise of reading can be quite difficult for the beginner, particularly because the text is in Ge’ez, a language no longer spoken and therefore far from the experience of the child. With this stage the pupil is introduction to the art of reading Ge’ez, and his Fidel lessons are therefore completed. He can then practice reading different religious texts.

b) Reading lessons from religious books

The number and the kind of books the student has to read at this stage is not standardized. All depends on the availability of books. Traditionally, teachers in different areas select any text for reading. The following texts are known to have been used in different areas: Gabata Hawaria, i.e. selected epistles of St. Paul, St. James, and St. Peter; the Gospels, usually the Gospel of St. John is used as a text for exercise; Arganon: praises of St. Tamara Mariam: the miracles and wonder of St. Mary; Paulos: the epistles of St. Paul; Tamara Iyasus: the miracles of Jesus; the Acts of the Apostles, etc. Pupils need not understand the texts of these books, but they have to be able to read them well, since thee are the books read in the church service, where young boys serve as readers, deacons, and later on as priests. The methods of practicing the reading are those described under the Fidel Hawaria, namely, Qutir, Ge’ez, Wurdnebab, and Nebab.

When the pupil is able to read a text, he starts a new lesson known in Amharic as Yemata Timhirt, i.e. an evening lesson, or Yeqal Timhirt, i.e. memorization. Every evening he has to memorize the daily prayers. In the evening the pupils come to the house of the teacher, which is also at the same time the school itself’ All stand around the teacher while the lesson is given. The teacher or an advance student recites to the pupil sentence by sentence or verse-by-verse the standard prayer the child has to memorize. The pupil then repeats the sentence till he knows it well. This exercise is repeated for months or every a couple of years, until the boy knows the main prayers by heart. In some cases the Ethiopic catechetical book, the Aemade Mestir (Columnae Mister), particularly Mistere Sellassie (on the Trinity), is taught in Amharic. All other texts are in Ge’ez. Since the pupils do not understand the texts, the memorization drills are very exacting in energy and time. When the teacher is convinced from his daily observations that his pupil had mastered the reading exercises, he lets him start to learn the reading of the Psalms.

C) Reading the Psalms

The pupil now learns to read the psalms, the most important devotional book of Ethiopian Christians. The method he uses is the chanting from and the Wurdnebab reading process. After repeating the entire book of Psalms several times using Wurdnebab, he continues reading for months, even over a year, using the Qum-Nebab reading method. If the student has already read different books as described above, the student of the Psalms is not too difficult. In some cases students are made to memorize the texts of the Psalms. This is particularly important for those students who plan to continue on the higher learning, since passages from the Psalms are used frequently in the hymns and poems of the church. Gradually the pupil masters the art of good reading. The teacher normally does not set a formal examination to judge the work of the pupil. However, he follows the progress of his student daily, so no special tests are needed.

When he is convinced that the pupil has reached the level of knowledge traditionally required at this stage of learning, he indicated that the time has come when he may leave the Nebab Bet. This is considered one of the most important events in the life of the pupil. It is also an occasion of joy for the family, and the parents usually organize a feast to mark the event.

A reader of the psalms enjoys certain privileges as one of the elite in his village. He may be called upon to read and write letters. At certain ceremonies he may recite prayers, if no priest is available. The girls from traditional families who have attended the school usually marry before or shortly after they complete the lessons in the House of Reading.

Qedasse Bet--- The training of the altar priest

Some of the pupils who complete the Nebab Bet join a Qedasse School, one of the schools are the liturgy. A teacher specialized in Qedasse or the Mass is to be found in practically all the main churches. A teacher specialized in this branch of the liturgy teachers the Gebre Diquna and Gebre Qissina, i.e. the functions of deacon and of a priest in the liturgy. Children of the clergy, who use church lands usually enter such schools in order to become deacon or priests in a church (and thus keep their church land in the hands of the family). The office of a priest is particularly attractive to tenants or landless peasants, because a priest in his area enjoys privileges, and his office entitles him to possession of the land known as Semon land. The function of an altar priest is limited to carrying out the rituals of the Mass and the Sacraments. For this purpose scanty training suffices. A Qedasse teacher normally teaches only the hymns which a deacon or a priest has to use in the liturgy of the Church. The rest, including the teaching the traditions and service of the Church, is learned through daily experience in the parish itself. Usually a candidate for his training is attached to a priest or monk to whom he gives certain services, accompanying him on visits of families, festivals, and ceremonies in and outside the parish. Through observation or day-to-day practice and instruction by his priest-master, the boy learns the Church activities and functions of a deacon and of a priest. The activities of the priest, therefore, are limited to the rituals, which do not usually demand the understanding of the Scriptures. Thus relatively little education is expected from a young man to be ordained an altar priest.

The higher schools of the church

We have seen that the Qedasse bet trains mainly the altar priests, who are known as the semonegna (those who serve weekly). These are the only members of the clergy who are allowed to celebrate the mass and administer sacraments. However, before and after the mass there are readings of the scriptures, ritual dance, and long hymns and poems. To be able to carry out this further service one has to attend a higher school of the church, which should be considered an extension of the Nebab and Qedasse Bet.

The leading teachers and scholars of the church, who are known as Debtera, are trained in the higher school. A Debtera is a general term given to all those who have completed one of the higher schools of the church. Theoretically, priests and monks can also be characterized as Debtera, if they have completed studies in one of the higher schools. In practice however, few fall into this category, and these few are not usually known as Debtera. The majority of the Debtera are laymen, and as such they are not allowed to serve in the mass and the administration of sacraments. Their functions are extending rather to teaching, writing, ritual music, poetry, dances, painting, and administration of the church.

A student of the Nebab Bet or Qedasse Bet, who would like to join the higher schools, usually leaves his parents and joins the wandering students who travel from parish to parish and form monastery to monastery. Traditionally a boy can receive only the Nebab Bet instruction while he is at home. The main reason for wandering in search of schools and teachers is that in rural areas any higher education is not possible for a youth who remains with his parents, except in a few cases of Debtera families. The heavy demands of cultivation and cattle tending force the parents to demand the services of their children. Besides this, the student is attracted by the adventurous and romantic life of a begging and wondering student, about whom much is spoken and fabulous stories are told. Wandering students usually come from farming and clerical families – very few are from the higher classes.

With the spread of modern education and a modern school system this institution is declining. Fewer young people are motivated to study in the higher church schools. One of the main reasons for this change is that the graduates of the church schools have lost their traditional elite status in the social order, which today particularly in the modern sector, is being occupied by those who have a modern western type of education.
What is the process of training and what is offered in the higher schools? The main courses of study are in church music, church poetry, and religious literature, each divided according to content of instruction.

In all these schools the students must learn the material by heart. To demonstrate this we should describe the average study day at the Zema Bet. The teacher of Zema sits in the middle of his pupils, who are practicing their daily assignment of the hymns individually or in-groups. Each group sings from a single text, or one of the groups sings and the rest observe him. The more advanced students serve as monitors to instruct the beginners. When one of the students has mastered the hymn, he goes and sings before the teacher. The teacher either approves and gives the student a new assignment or orders further practice on the same text. The lessons advance in this manner day after day until the student finishes the fixed text of the hymn and knows it by heart.

The training challenges the memory of the child rather than leading him to think. In spite of the monotony of the learning and teaching methods and the exacting length of time, the students show surprisingly high morale. There are ofcourse reasons for their diligence. The wandering student expects a high position in the church hierarchy. Furthermore, since the instruction is considered sacred, just as prayer is, the student takes his assignment seriously. The resulting high morale in the school community helps the individual student to adapt himself to the hard work. The usually strict demands of the teachers are accepted with out hesitation, because the wandering student has come to the school of his own free will and has willingly submitted himself to the authority of the teacher. If he is not satisfied, he can leave the school and look for another one.

1. Qene Bet

There are Qene forms or models that the student has to master in order to be able to compose the Qene poems which are sung in different sections of the liturgy of the church or used to celebrate church and state ceremonials. About nine models are famous in the Samenna Worq (wax and gold) Qene system. There are also other Qene types which are however not as widespread as the Samenna Worq.
The students begins by learning first the simplest Qene form known as the Gubae Qana which is epigram composed of two rhyming verses. He then learns Ze’amlakiye (3 verses), Wazema (5 verses). Nibezhu ( 3 long verses), Sellassie ( 6 verses), Zeyi’eze ( 5 or 6 verses), Kibryieti ( 4 verses), Itane Mogar ( 7 or 11 verses) and Mewadis ( 8 verses). These are most widespread but there are other forms, e.g. in Gojjam, the Gonji and Washera schools of Qene differ from this.

The student learns Qene with more interest and motivation than the other disciplines, such as Zema. There are several reasons for this. The main one is that the student understands the Ge’ez language in the Qene school. The teaching method allows the boy free activities and movements as illustrated below. In the student an aesthetic interest is developed, or at least awakened. The following illustration may make this clear.
The Qene lessons usually start in the afternoon or in some places early in the evening. The place of instruction is usually a communal hut near the teacher’s dwelling known as the Mahber Bet, or simply in the open or under a tree. First there is a prayer to be recited. The teacher may then make some remarks on the students’ work for the day. As the main task of the session some Ge’ez verbs are conjugated, and the proper usage of selected verbs and nouns is demonstrated by examples from different Qene verses composed by the teacher and advanced students on the spot. The story or legend of the saint whose feast is to be celebrated on the next day is then narrated; this comprises the theme of the Qene composition by the students, using the vocabulary and grammar already discussed at the session.

During the evening the student endeavours to find the proper music to fit the Qene model he is going to compose; since all Qene has to be sung, his Qene piece must be suited to a corresponding musical form. The next day the student looks for a secluded place and meditates on his composition. When he has composed his Qene verse after the model assigned to him by the teacher, he then approaches the teacher, who sits for the most part of the day at a place known to all. The teacher is usually engaged in some individual work such as reading, copying a manuscript, or even doing some handwork.
The student recites the product of his intellectual labour. The teacher either accepts the verses or the offers critical comments and sends the student back for further meditation, students come at intervals to the teacher to recite in the manner.

In the afternoon the session or Gubae takes place again. The work of the day is first reviewed, in which a lively discussion is usually generated. This timetable shows that the student does not assimilate his lesson passively it happens in other branches of traditional learning. He has the opportunity to discuss the theme given, which challenges his intellect. He should not, however, contradict or be critical of religious and other accepted values. The student strains his power of expression to construct the Qene verses in a vivid, enigmatic manner or to express his experience in social life in connection with biblical stories, visions, and legendary events.

One could say that in the Qene School the content of learning covers practically all aspects of the values of the traditional social system in which the student lives. The Qene School is perhaps the only school where the students can received both intellectual and traditional training. It is generally recognized that the most able clergy of the Church are those trained in the Qene School. The main interest and purpose of the school is, however, not to develop poetic and other aesthetic interests in the child or youth, but to enable him to carry out the Church rituals. A graduate of Qene School looks for a position in a Church and serves in the choir where he composes Qene and sings, or he may take a post as a minor teacher or administrator in the Church. Those who want to study further may join the next school, the Metsehaf Bet. To specialize in Qene so as to be a teacher in a higher school, the student must attend several schools and study more branches of Qene, which means studying and wandering for some years more.

2. Metsehaf Bet

This is the general term for the School of Commentaries composed of four branches. The first type is known as Beluy. The 46 Books of the Old Testament are studied and commented upon. The second branch is the Haddis, a specialized school on the commentaries of the 35 Books of the Ethiopian New Testament. The third branch is Liqawent, which presents studies and comments on the various writings of the Church Fathers, e.g. Saint John Chrysostom, Qerlos and others. The canon law (Fetha Negest) as well as the calendar calculation (Bahre Hasab) are also studied here. The last branch of the Metsehaf Bet is the Menekosat, the School of Commentaries on monastic literature.

In these specialized branches the students learns the traditions of the Church, theology, Church history and laws, through the interpretation of the various individual writings. The commentaries of these teachings do not proceed under systematic theological or historical categories, but when each sentence or phrase of a text is interpreted, depending on the content, theological, moral and historical questions are raised, discussed, and developed. The student has to learn each sentence of the commentary by heart. The following is a typical example of a Metsehaf Bet lesson:

Students come to the teacher in a group of three or four, all studying the same text. One of the group reads a sentence or a phrase. The teacher first translates the sentence into Amharic and then comments on it. The students listen attentively and try to remember the comment word for word. When this group leaves the teacher, another group or individual comes to read to the teacher and hears his commentary. After leaving the teacher each group moves apart and tries to comment on the text just as the teacher did, as much as possible word for word. If one misses a word or an idea, another member of the group recalls it and supplements. After some time the group goes again to the teacher and reads the same text and again comments on it. This way the group can compare its progress to know how far it had grasped the interpretation of the previous time.

This memorization of the commentary of the books exacts many years of exercise and labour, which the adult student is ready to accept. A graduate of the Metsehaf Bet enjoys high prestige as a scholar and can take a high post in the Church hierarchy, such as head of a monastery (Gedam) or a large church (Debre). This hope is perhaps one of the motives that encourages the student to spend more that half of his life at such a school. At this stage memorization is not felt as a burden by the student, because ever since his early days in the Nebab Bet he has developed his powers of memorization.

One important reason memorization is so stressed all through the Church Schools is that writing materials were traditionally not well developed. The few handwritten manuscripts on parchments were, and still are, very expensive. Aside from the Authoritarian tradition there is another consideration; the student is not allowed to have a critical opinion about any text to be commented upon, since it is believed that God revealed the content to the Fathers through the Holy Sprit. Therefore, these patristic writings are not to be considered critically, but simply learnt by heart. The habit of memorization and the uncritical acceptance of the commentary condition the mode of thinking of the student.
In this way the historical interpretations are mixed with legendary tales and special natural events, all considered to be miracles, and even concrete phenomena are given symbolical meanings. The expressions are vividly illustrated with parables, analogies, proverbs, and popular wisdom. Parallels are quoted from the history of the country while interpreting the passages on the Holy Land. Generally, the approach to reality is well mixed with mythical attitudes.

These schools of commentaries are not to be found everywhere, but in large churches, Debre, and in monasteries, Geddam, where extensive libraries and famous teachers are to be found. It may be that church schools as a whole will take on a new impetus and play an important role in raising the general level of education of the clergy in the future.

The church schools that have been described above provide the continuation of traditional education in Ethiopia. Modern education, of recent origin, is provided mainly in schools operated by the Government. However, in the urban centers and roadside towns the elementary church school, the Nebab Bet is flourishing as an institution to prepare pupils for Government schools, teaching young children literacy in Amharic. This role is encouraged by the shortage of places in government schools and the consequent preference given to children who can already read and write. Such schools may perhaps play a wider role within the context of the national campaign for literacy and provide more instruction for adults as well as young pupils.

It should be noted that the Church is fully aware of the necessity to train its own future leaders in such a way that they will fulfill their role in modern society. Modern theological colleges exist which combine traditional studies with the broader curriculum demanded in the twentieth century. A number of theological students have also progressed to further advanced studies abroad. In other words, the church is successfully bridging the transition from strictly traditional scholarship to a new, dynamic era where traditional learning and modern education will blend together to ensure the continuity of Ethiopia’s Christian heritage in the setting of modern world.

Sources: A publication of the EOTC

Written by Professor Sergew Hable Sellassie and Professor Tadesse Tamerat “THE CHURCH OF ETHIOPIA A PANORAMA OF HISTORY AND SPIRITUAL LIFE” Addis Ababa –December 1970.

The oriental Orthodox Churches Addis Ababa Conference, January 1965

By By Haile Gebriel Dagne


The conference of the Heads of oriental Orthodox Churches, which was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during January 1965, is undoubtedly an event of some importance in the history of the church in our times. For the first time in history is brought together in a formal meeting the Heads of five of the historic Churches. Accompanied by a few delegates each, they came together and thereby inaugurated a new era of cooperation and communication among their Churches. Although these five Churches have all along recognized one another officially as sister churches holding full Eucharistic fellowship with each other, they have not had a common council or synod after the fifth century. The Addis Ababa Conference has now brought to an end this practical isolation one from another of these Churches and opened up a new age in which they may be expected both to manifest concretely their unity and to play their role together in serving the Christian cause in the modern world.

The Addis Ababa conference of the Heads of Church lasted only about fifteen days. But it did pave the way for the participating churches leap over more than fifteen centuries of mutual isolation. For it was at Ephesus in 431 A.D that these Churches lasted only about fifteen days. But it did pave the way for the participating churches to leap over more than fifteen centuries of mutual isolation. For it was at Ephesus in 431 A.D that these churches had their last common council. Now after so many long centuries, this conference has offered them the beginning of a new era of cooperation. This should indeed be followed up through coordinated planning and concerted action, so that the churches concerned may be enable to manifest the unity which exists among them and promote the cause of the church in the modern world.

It is with this goal in mind that their Holiness’s the patriarchs have, through the conference, adopted the decisions which are published in the present volume. In fact they have sanctioned the appointment of various committees, which in the light of adequate study and comprehensive vision will draw the attention of the Churches to the many tasks which they have to fulfill. Existing as it does in an age of science, the church should be able to combine with its spiritual purity the many insights which science offers. From this point of view, the plan of creating a centre for evangelistic studies and an institution for higher theological learning is to be heartily welcomed.

The conference of the Heads of churches which took only a week was preceded by another week of preparatory work by specially delegated theologians. The task of organizing them both needed several months of planning. In fact, the very idea of the conference reached its maturity after several years of contemplation. Behind all this there was his Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, who convened the conference, there by giving it a setting similar to that of the Councils of the ancient Church. So it was quite fitting that the conference conferred on the Emperor the little, “Defender of Faith”.

This Conference is only a beginning – just a humble one at that – towards leading the Church concerned to realize and fulfill their God-given mission in the world. But we have firm hope in the power of God who will continue the work thus begun, so that it may bear fruit to his glory. We believe that our Lord Jesus Christ who sumptuously fed five thousand men with the negligible provision of five loaves and two fishes will lead the churches in this great work.

In this connection, a special word of appreciation is due to the diplomatic missions of the Government of Ethiopia for their commendable service in communicating most promptly all the necessary messages relating to the Conference to the various Churches. While extending to the members of the various committees, the interim Secretary, and his assistants, the sincere appreciation and thanks of the secretariat, of the conference, may I express my profound joy to see that this document is being published, and that its copies will be placed in the hands of all those who love the church.


The five churches which took part in the Addis Ababa conference have, each of them, a long history, which in most cases can be traced back to the first century of the Christian era. At the same time, with reference to the fifth century Christological controversy they remain loyal to the Alexandrine theological tradition as it had been declared orthodox by the council of Ephesus in 431. On this ground they renounce the council of Chalcedon held in 451, which, they maintain, did practically contradict the council of 431.
In consequence of this stand as well as of various other causes these Churches have been made to face disabilities of many kinds. This, to be sure, is one of the main reasons why these Churches happened to be isolated both from the rest of Christendom and from one another. However, in spite of all such disadvantages they have continued to exist in the world holding to “the faith once delivered to the saints”, and today they include in their total membership over twenty million believers.

All this five Churches are members of the world council of churches. The wind contacts which this offered had led many in these churches to hope and pray for a common council of their own churches to be convened. The leaders of the world council of churches have also been showing much interest in such a development.


SThe Lord of the church answered the prayers and put into the main of His Imperial Majesty Haile Sellassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, the idea of convening a conference of the Heads of these Churches in his own capital city, as a first step towards bringing the churches into a state of concrete unity and mutual cooperation. A devout member and protector of the Ethiopian orthodox church which is one of the participating churches, the Emperor himself had, ever since has elevation to the imperial throne of Ethiopia, been waiting for a suitable occasion to call together a conference of these churches.

At last the time came, and on 18th May 1964 the Emperor sent out invitations to Heads of the Churches, requesting them to take part in a conference which he was planning to convene. On receiving their replies of acceptance, he entrusted the responsibility of making the necessary preparations with three local committees. These were a program committee under the chairmanship of His Beatitude Abuna Theophilos, Archbishop of Harar and Deputy Patriarch of the Ethiopia Orthodox Church; a Reception Committee led by His Excellency Balambras Mahetheme Sellassie, Minister of public Works of the Ethiopian Government; and a Secretariat with His Excellency Ato Abeba Retta, Minister of public Health of the Ethiopian Government, as Secretary General. These Committees, in cooperation with the staff of the Theological College of the Holy Trinity and persons like the Reverend Father T. Paul Verghese of the World Council of churches, did the work assigned to them during the several months preceding the conference.

In conclusion with the Heads of Churches, the program Committee prepared a tentative list of subjects to be discussed by the conference. Besides, this Committee arranged for the convening of a preparatory consolation by group of two theologians each deputed by every church to work out the “Schema” as a basis of discussion at the subsequent Conference of the Heads of Churches.


This was held during January 7-14, 1965 in one of the Committee Rooms of the Africa hall. With solemn prayer and an address of welcome delivered by his Grace Abuna Philipos, Archbishop of Jerusalem, representing the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the work of the committee of theologians formally began at 11 a.m. on January 7, 1965. it was attended by delegates of all the five Churches, the Secretary General, and other officers of the Conference. The meeting elected His Grace Abuna Philipos, representing the host Church, to be its permanent chairman, and every session was presided over by a delegate of each Church who was chosen by a principle of rotation. Each of these sessions began and concluded its work with prayer led by every member of the Committee also by rotation.

Held behind closed doors, this consultation was indeed a great success and an unforgettable experience for those who took part in it. After long discussions carried on in a spirit of frankness and cordiality on the basis of the tentative list of subjects which the program Committee had prepared these theologians unanimously recommended the “Schema” for the Conference of the Heads. A summary of the discussion is preserved in the short notes taken down by two recording secretaries, whose services had been graciously lent by the World Council of churches. Besides, the Committee had its official findings drafted by a body of three persons elected from among its membership. These findings were finally approved by a committee with necessary modification in order that they may be presented to the conference. The “Schema” thus proposed by the group of theologians to be submitted for deliberation by the conference consisted of forty paragraphs dealing with the following subjects: - I. The Modern World and our churches; II. Cooperation in Theological Education; III. Cooperation in Evangelism; IV. Our Relation with other churches; V. Instituting Machinery for the Maintenance of permanent Relations: and VI. A Statement on Peace and Justice in the world.


The conference had its sessions from January 15-21, 1965. The Heads with delegates other than those who had taken part in the preparatory consultation had arrived by plane on January 14th. They were received at the airport by His Imperial Majesty in person and high-ranking dignitaries of both the church and the state. Besides, there was a very larger gathering of people at the airport to accord a cordial welcome to the holy Fathers on their arrival. They were also given a special reception at the cathedral of the Holy Trinity in accordance with the tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Reception Committee had made all the necessary arrangements for the comfortable stay of these most venerable guests in Addis Ababa.

The Conference was inaugurated at 11a.m. on January 15th in the context of a short service of prayer. The rotunda of the Africa Hall had been reserved for the delegates and all the seats in the gallery were occupied by invited guests. On rostrum seats were arranged for the Heads of the Churches following the ancient tradition of precedence, and a bible placed on a beautifully decorated table remained at the center of the hall in front of these seats. At this inauguration ceremony the place reserved for the Patriarch of Alexandria remained vacant, as His Holiness Anba Kyrillos pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the see of St. Mark arrived only two days later. The conference was declared open by Emperor Haile Sellassie I as the host, who delivered the inaugural address, welcoming the guests and expressing his unbounded joy in the great event signified by the conference. Following him, two of the Heads, namely His Holiness Moran Mar Ignatius Yacub III, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, and His Holiness Vasken I, Supreme Catholicos and Patriarch of the Armenian Orthodox Church, also spoke thanking the Emperor and wishing the Conference every success.

The inaugural ceremony was followed by the regular sessions of the Conference, two sittings each day, expect on 17th January which was a Sunday. Attended only by the Heads and delegates with the officers of the conference, these sessions were also held behind closed doors. Each session began and concluded its program of work with prayer led by one of the Heads, and in response to a unanimous request of the conference His Excellency Ato Abeba Retta, the Secretary General, assumed the role of the Moderator, and Ato Aberra Jembere served as the General Secretary. During these sessions the recommendations of the committee of theologians were read in the context of a very lively discussion of the issues raised in them. As at the preparatory consultation of theologians, the discussion, and a body of five persons was appointed to draft the findings. These men did the work assigned to them and the statements which necessary alterations, as its decisions.

The conference came to a close on January 21st. At 4 p.m. on that day the concluding session was held in the presence of a large gathering of people. On this occasion also the Emperor delivered an address, following by speeches by all the Heads of Churches. This closing session most solemnly conferred on His Imperial Majesty Haile Sellassie I the title of “the Defender of Faith”, and placed on record the feeling of sincere gratitude towards all those who worked for the success of the decisions approved by the Conference.


Although this was a Conference of the Heads of five Churches, the Heads and delegates of the Armenian Orthodox Church expressed their inability to participate in it fully, because of certain internal difficulties of administration which they were facing between the Supreme Catholicos of Etchmidzin and the Catholicos of the Great House of Cecilia. So at the closed sessions of the Conference the Armenian Orthodox church was represented only by observers, and neither of the Catholicos of the Armenian Orthodox Church signed the decisions at the conclusion of the conference. We are happy to note, however, that His Holiness Khoren I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cecilia, has subsequently signified his willingness to be considered a full participant of the Conference. We hope and pray that the Armenian Orthodox Church will be se guided by the Holy Spirit that will join fully with its sister Churches.


Following its adjournment, the standing Committee appointed by the Conference had several meetings, in which a number of decisions have been made with a view to follow up the work of the Conference. It should also be noted that in response to the request of the Conference, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church soon set up the interim Secretariat in Addis Ababa with Ato Seifu Metaferia as its Secretary General. In this way the work which the Conference aimed to accomplish is being carried on. We pray God to shower His unceasing blessings on these churches, and guide them by His Holy Spirit that they may become effective witnesses of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.


The English Translation of His Majesty’s Original Letter of Invitation
Sent to the Heads of the four Oriental Orthodox Churches 18th May, 1964

Your Holiness,
We extend loving and friendly greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ever since Our ascension to the throne, by the will of the Almighty God, of our fathers, it has been our great desire to see representatives of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and her traditional sister Oriental Orthodox Churches gather around one table in our capital city to strengthen their unity in faith and further their good relations as well as to solve their common problems by mutual exchange of ideas.

Because of our expressed desire to see this noble objective achieved, namely, the extension of God’s kingdom, we have at last decided to convince such a meeting.
Our great fathers met first at Nicea, then at Constantinople, and finally at Ephesus. Notwithstanding the very long period that has elapsed since then, the spirit of unity in faith of these sister Oriental Orthodox Churches has been maintained. This fact has encouraged us to convince this meeting. If the representatives of our Churches meet once again, there is no doubt that the common faith will be further strengthened.

Other Churches and Denominations have their own separate meetings to discuss their common problems and to strengthen their unity. Now more than ever before, when the Churches are faced with great responsibilities and need greater strength, it is quite appropriate that the leaders of our Churches should meet together to discuss common problems and exchanges ideas. Your Holiness is well aware of the great need and usefulness of such a meeting.

It is, therefore, our desire that these ancient sister Churches should meet together in order to strengthen their unity in faith, to discuss points of common interest, resolve their common problems, and especially to pave the way for the ultimate reunification of the divided Churches of Christ.

We are happy to arrange such a meeting of the leaders of the sister Oriental Orthodox Churches to be held here in our capital city of Addis Ababa from September 25, 1964 to October5, 1964.

With great personal regards to your Holiness, We extend this invitation hoping that your Holiness will be able to attend and participate in this meeting.

We wish Your Holiness all peace from God and good health.



Venerable and Holy Fathers,

On this occasion when you, Venerable Heads of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, are assembled together in our capital city, it is appropriate to demonstrate our joy by singing with the psalmist, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”(Ps 133:1).

The Unity of the Church, as your Holinesses well know, is the will of God and ought to be inspiring example to all men. It should always be a help and not hindrance to the unity of men of different religions. As church history testifies, the church fathers from the apostolic period up to the Third council (4th century A.D) did hold councils to formulate the doctrines of the church and to draft rules of Churches administration. It is with the hope that your meeting will contribute in a significant way to the unity of the Church, and indirectly to the unity of church, and indirectly to the unity of all men, that we have invited your Holinesses and Venerable Fathers to our capital city.

Today not only the Church, but also the political powers of the world are frequently meeting, leaving their difference aside, to tackle common problems, and find ways and means for the achievement and preservation of world peace. The church should not overlook this great task because she is the source of peace and fraternity.

Our own church is as ancient as our faith, and her history is replete with accounts of the unswerving faith of our people, the inspiring heroism of our martyrs, the holiness of our saints. The history of our nation has always been closely related to the history of our Church, and the church has been both the rallying point and the inspirer of our national unity. Christianity has flourished in our country, keeping its original features and character through the centuries. As a nation we have a great debt to the Church for our cultural heritage.

Ethiopia has been from ancient times well known for he hospitality and this is not the first time she has welcome holy fathers like yourselves. From the 4th century A.D onward monks and saints have come from Egypt, Syria and other Christian countries to Ethiopia and been received with high honor and great respect. T o mention only a few among those who are canonized in the Ethiopian church, the Nine Saints who came from different countries of Middle East and Abuna Gebre-Menfas-Kidus are examples. Those holy fathers, preaching and establishing monasteries in various parts of our country, have greatly contributed to Ethiopian Christianity. Therefore, many churches and monasteries are dedicated to them in undying memory of the spiritual services, which they rendered to our country.

In ancient times, when the Faith of the whole Church was one, our country had the closest relations with the Emperors of Christian Byzantium. At the time when several Christian peoples in the North became subservient to non- Christian powers, our country gladly gave asylum to thousands of Christian refugees. It had equally given asylum from religious persecution at an earlier date to the followers of the founder of Islam. Only when our own immediate neighbors ceased to be Christian did our contacts with our fellow-Christians in the North and East become difficult to maintain.

Ethiopia, an island of Christianity has made her own distinctive contribution to the Christian faith; for, ever since her conversion to Christianity, she has remained faithful, her age-old ties with the apostolic church uninterrupted. For this reason she is universally renowned as the faithful daughter of St. Mark of Alexandria. The opportunity we have today to discuss our common interests and problems together is the fruit of that ancient unity. To defend the faith and to preserve our ancient ties with your respective countries, our fathers the Emperors of Ethiopia and Ethiopian people have exerted great efforts all through our history. We are grateful to all of them.

It is therefore with great joy that we welcome your Holinesses to our land and to our Church. Your Holinesses bring with you sacred memories from the ancient past. Your presence here is a pledge and token of the desire of all Christians to be one.
Ever since we ascended the historic throne of Ethiopia, we have considered it our duty to call a meeting of the churches who belong to the same fold. We were praying to God for His help in achieving this holy purpose, so that He may grant it to us to see this event. In ancient times the Byzantine emperors used to summon the Councils. Our sincere wish from the very beginning was to see these churches meeting to discuss their common interests and decide on their common problems. This wish is in actual fact fulfilled today, and we are happy to witness it. Therefore, we thank Almighty God, first because he has enabled us properly to fulfill our clear duty and, secondly, because our long cherished desire has now met with fulfillment. Henceforth the matter will demand the spiritual unity and hard work of your Holinesses. For strength can be achieved through unity, and success is the fruit of cooperation. There is no doubt that work done through a cooperative spirit shell meet with success. Christ affirmed:-
“…..That if two of you agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my father which is in heaven” (Math. 18:19)

For centuries past our Orthodox Church have been without contact. Perhaps that which still divides the two groups is a matter of some importance. Perhaps it is not. In any case, we live in a time when even political differences are discussed around the conference table and peaceful and amicable solutions sought by all. The church can afford to do no less.

Our age is characterized by notable advances in the sphere of communications, and is therefore rightly termed and age of unity and of coming together. In this connection we recall the noble efforts of Archbishop Nathan Soderblom of Sweden who took the initiative for the “Universal Christian Conference” which met in Stockholm as long ago as 1925. We have also followed with keen interest the deliberations of the Ecumenical Council held last November in Vatican City under the spiritual leadership of Pope Paul the sixth of Rome.

This Conference may not be able to come to conclusions here and now. Yet it behaves the leaders of the churches to begin to seek ways and means of reconciliation and collaboration. As noted in your agenda, you are to consider the problem of peace, because the world today is facing a great dilemma: the catastrophically weapons which are the result of human ingenuity menace the word to the point of annihilation, and the human race is more than ever in need of the prayers and support of the church. In this face we have another ground for cooperation with all the Churches of the world. As the followers of Christ let us not forget how often our case has suffered through disunity.

We would like to refer in conclusion to the question of social welfare in the modern world. For a country can achieve much more in this field if supported by the Church. The will of God will be realized and humanity can achieve progress in both spiritual and material fields in a healthy society.

We consider it a great blessing to us and to our people that your Holinesses have come to bless our land with your sacred presence. Our people and our Church rejoice to welcome Your Holinesses in our midst.

Holy Fathers, as the spiritual descendants of the Apostles of Christ, you have an eminent responsibility, which responsibility would include the improvement of the relations of laity with clergy and of church with society.

We hope and trust that God will guide the discussion here according to His will and that His power will assist Your Holinesses in finding common solutions to common problems in the spirit of amity and concord. May God who helped the 318 Fathers of the Council of Nicea enlighten and help us all.


Esteemed Fathers and revered Brothers,

We in Ethiopia are indeed delighted that you are with us and that we join with you in service for the next few days. So let me, on behalf of the Ethiopia Orthodox Church, His Imperial Majesty’s Government and of my own, take this opportunity to extend to you our warmest and most sincere welcome to our Church and country. You are responsible leaders and theologians of some of the most ancient and renewed Churches in the world and you have come to Ethiopia as the officially chosen delegates of your own respective communities. So we consider it an honor to welcome you and a great privilege to entertain you.

You have come to Ethiopia to perform a glorious piece of work, and it is quite fitting that it has been so arranged that you will begin it on these days of the Feast of Christmas. Our lord Jesus Christ was born more than nineteen centuries ago in that lowly manger in Bethlehem. He came into the world to bring peace on earth by uniting man with God and man with man. He lived on earth and died on the cross. But He rose again from the dead and is present with us to lead us in the way of peace.

On these blessed days you have come together to work under His leadership and guided by the Holy Spirit to lay the foundation of a renewed spirit to lay the foundation of a renewed spirit of forward movement in our Churches, a movement which should contribute to growth and enable all those who are called by the name Christian to drew closer together and express the fullness of unity, for which our Lord earnestly prayed. We know that this is a very great task, but we hope that God will guide you to make a good start towards its fulfillment. The conference of the Heads of our Churches, which is to follow your consultation, will rely on your labors for their decisions. So the success of the Conference will depend upon what you will be doing during these few days. Our earnest support in prayer goes with you, and we believe that God who has brought you here will be with you guiding you in all your thinking and activities.

We trust that you will enjoy your stay with us. Once again let me assure you that you are most welcome in Ethiopia, and that you may count on us that we will do our best to make you happy and comfortable in every way possible.


Your Imperial Majesty, Holy Fathers and Brothers beloved clergy and people.

It is with deep sense of gratitude to Almighty God that we stand here on this occasion, and the joy which we feel in the depths of our hearts is beyond words to describe. Your Majesty has offered us a memorable opportunity to meet in your beautiful capital. While listening to the speech of your Majesty, we are reminded of the episode at the Council of Nicea in 325, when following the inaugural oration of Emperor Constantine, St. Eustathius of Antioch delivered an address praising the Emperor. Although we consider ourselves unworthy to take the place of that illustrious soul, as a successor of his on the holy see of the Apostle Peter we deep it our most pleasant privilege to speak these few words following your Majesty. In calling this historic Conference, your Majesty has shown yourself a worthy successor of the faithful Emperors in Christian history who have served the cause of the Church in their respective generations. While thanking your Majesty for convening this Conference, may we express our most sincere gratitude to the government and people of Ethiopia as well as to the Ethiopia Orthodox Church.

As the meeting of Heads and leaders of our sister Orthodox Churches of the East, this Conference is a great event for our Churches. Through we have a common heritage of Orthodox faith, our Churches have not had an opportunity of meeting together in this way for many long centuries. But now God has, through his servant Haile Sellassie I, the Lion of Juda and the glorious Emperor of Ethiopia, made it possible for us to come together. In fact, from the time when our humble self was elevated to the holy see of the Apostle peter, we have been praying God to open the way for a meeting of our Churches, and when two of our brother Metropolitans visited Ethiopia soon after our installation, we had sent through them an appeal to your Majesty urging you to convene it. Now your Majesty has, out of your own gracious decision, called this Conference and we of the Syrian Orthodox Church all over the world rejoices in it.

It is fitting on this occasion for me to say that as the ruler of Ethiopia your Majesty is a person whom we hold in the highest esteem. We remember you always in the celebration of our Liturgy. In so doing, we follow the worthy instruction of our distinguished Fathers like Mar Dionysius Bar Salibi in the twelfth. They have enjoined on us that we should remember the kings of Ethiopia in our Eucharistic Service, as they share the same faith with us. Even our Churches have very close relationship with each other at least from the forth century. So we have record that St. Frumentius who was the first Archbishop of Ethiopia had come from Tyre within the province of our see. Mar Jacob Baradaeus in the sixth century visited Ethiopia, and that about the same time the Nine Saints settled down in this country leaving their home in Syria. We are indeed happy that we are able to visit this great land, its Church and people.

Our Churches have indeed inherited the Orthodox faith from our Fathers. But we have not always manifested its meaning through the redeeming powers of divine love to a world which is hungry for it. That is one reason why our Churches have not been able to make the Gospel of Christ more real to our non-Christian neighbors. Through this conference we shall not only strengthen the bond of unity which exists among us, but shall also seek to reexamine the ways in which our true faith should transform our people. Besides, we shall agree together on practical programs of common action to make our Christian witness more effective in the world. With these concerns in mind, we pray that Almighty God may so order our deliberations that our Conference may give a new start to our ancient Churches.

To you Imperial Majesty and to the people of Ethiopia, especially to our brethren in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, we and our Bishops bring the warmest regards of the Syrian Orthodox Church all over the world. We have with us in this conference our exalted Brother, Mar Baselios Augen I, the Catholicos of the East, leading a delegation of his ancient Church in India. It gives us great joy to see that in spite of his old age our beloved brother has journeyed from far-off India to Ethiopia to take part in this Conference. May we convey to Your Majesty, the church and people of Ethiopia the warmest greetings also of the Syrian Orthodox Church of India.

Source: A publication of the EOTC

Conference of the Heads of Oriental Orthodox Churches
Conference of the Heads of Oriental Orthodox Churches Resolution and Concluding Speeches
Today's Ethiopia is Ethiopia of the Holy Scriptures, History and Antiquity