By Fernando Dameto Zaforteza, Deputy Director of Humanities at IE Business School
When one thinks of Ethiopia the first thing that usually pops up to one’s mind is the terrible famine the country suffered in the mid eighties, which motivated Geldof’s live aid concerts, or the more recent civil war with Eritrea, which ended in 2000 with the independence of the northern seacoast region. If one is a bit older – or better informed- he might mention the flamboyant African king that ruled the country for 60 years during the 20th century and who left behind numerous followers organized under a new religion , Ras Tafari Makonnen, AKA Haile Selassie I. A peculiar character, loved by most current Ethiopians, who was brilliantly portrayed by Ryszard Kapuscinski’s in The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat (Vintage,1989).
Only few will include in their description of this East African Nation the fact that it was one of the first countries to adopt Christianity and that it is mentioned several times in the Bible , or that it has one of the oldest alphabets and numeral systems (the only country I have been to that does not use Arabic numbers); or even its history rich in legends: since way back when the country was a monarchy, almost all kings were believed to be descendants of Melenik I, son of Solomon, King of Israel, sand the Queen of Sheba. Finally, it has one of the most interesting, rich, vast and unknown cultural patrimonies in the world.
The historical Her itage of Ethiopia is breathtaking: the series of inaccessible Tigray cave churches, like those in Meteora, to complicate an invasion prospect; the Gonder’s Castles Complex, like in Angkor, where every king constructed his palace close to the one of his predecessor, creating a succession of buildings that offers the visitor a taste of each king, (one keen on parties built a huge dining room; another, more ascetic, raised a humbler building). The most impressive, however, is Lalibela.
Lalibela’s string of churches and palaces, carved in rock, were constructed over a brief period of time: legend goes that when the workers went to bed, angels from heaven kept on doing their work during the night. King Lalibela, who sponsored its construction, shocked by the fall of Jerusalem in Saladin’s hands at the end of the Third Crusade, decided to build a new Jerusalem in Africa. This is why all the names of the complex are taken from the Near East, the river crossing by is called Jordan, the warehouse Betleem, etc. It bears some resemblance with the Nabatean city of Petra, both were carved on pink coloured rock and both are so big it requires a whole day to visit them. There is a major difference, though: the Ethiopian site is still in use.
We walked into Lalibela on Palm Sunday. Three priests were celebrating Sunday mass at the entrance while attendees, dressed in white, listened, prayed or got injera bread from hawkers. After avoiding stepping on parishioners, hard task as the place was overcrowded, one goes down and enters into a world of wonder. It was amazing to see the huge, beautiful site with people walking in and out, with priests taking care of the relics, believers prostrating while praying, others reading holy writings, some just occupied in their thoughts. There one feels like being back in the Middle Ages, in one of those Early Eastern Christian churches, marvellously, described by William Dalrymple in From the Holy Mountain: A Journey In The Shadow of Byzantium (Flamingo, 1997).
Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, although not included in Dalrymple’s books, can be considered as an extension of the Coptic Church, was depended on Alexandria’s Patriarchate until 1959. It has several similarities with other Eastern Churches, such as the use of an ancient liturgical language, Ge’ez, that barely no one speaks outside the priesthood, like Copts with Pharaonic or Syrians with Aramaic. They do prostrations, like Syrians, a fact that most will relate to Islam, but in fact a practice that was quite extended amongst Eastern Christians. They are Monophysites, like Copts and Armenians. They also share certain practices with Islam and Judaism, such as a forbiddance to eat pork, or the possibility of following services from a couple of miles away thanks to powerful loudspeakers.
What makes the Ethiopian Church so special is that they have been isolated from the rest of Christianity since Islam became the predominant faith in the Middle East and Northern Africa, despite some occasional contact with the West: epic is the story of the Jesuits Missions in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, well explained in Javier Reverte’s Dios, el diablo y la aventura (Plaza & Janés, 2001). The fact of being isolated led them to a complete different narrative from the Latin or Greek traditions. They believe Wise Man Balthasar was from Ethiopia or that the Holy Family in their flight to Egypt stopped in the Ethiopian Highlands. The iconography is also different. Virgin Mary is portrayed doing miracles, while their representation of Saint George is quite distant from the common European one. In the West, Saint George is painted/sculptured as a medieval armoured knight while in Ethiopia dresses with rich-coloured African gowns and is barefooted.
Ethiopia is a country that combines past and present, you can see caravans of camels transporting salt from the mines of the Desert of Danakil to the city of Mek’ele, while the capital Addis Abeba is a sort Africa’s Brussels or Washington, hosting numerous transnational organizations such as the African Union and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. Unfortunately, it is a country that, despite having so much to offer, hardly anyone, besides its proud nationals, seems to be aware of the rich cultural and historic patrimony hidden inside its mountains. Probably, the most accurate code name for Ethiopia was the one coined by National Geographic, The Hiden Empire .