Ethiopian Churches and Saints

A major part of the uniqueness of Ethiopia is its history as one of the first centres of Christianity. Whether one credits the legend that the Ethiopian Eunuch who encountered Philip in the Book of Acts, Chapter 8, took Christianity back to Queen Candace, the “royal woman” of the Ethiopians it is certain that King Ezena established Christianity as the country’s religion in 341 A.D.

The development of Christianity displays a fascinating progression, as churches were literally hewn from remote mountain cliffs and dug into the stony earth of this amazing country. From its beginnings in the ancient kingdom of Aksum, Christianity has spread throughout the country and has resisted the onset of Islam, though some Islamic communities exist, primarily in Southern Ethiopia. Today, 60% of Ethiopia’s 105 million people practise Christianity, predominantly following the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which gained its independence from the Egyptian Coptic church in 1959, having been under the jurisdiction of Cairo since the first bishop of Ethiopia, Frumentius, was sent back to Aksum in 331 A.D.

The most famous site is Lalibela with 11 monolithic churches chiselled into individual rocks, in an attempt by King Lalibela to build a new Jerusalem to replace that captured by Muslims in 1187. However, churches of an extraordinary nature are spread throughout the country in places such as Tigray, Gondar and Lasta.

With churches, of course, come Saints and Ethiopia has many, most of which travellers to the country will never have heard. Abba Garima, one of Nine Saints of the 5th century, produced the world’s oldest illustrated manuscript. Saint Tekla Haymanot, the only saint celebrated officially outside Ethiopia, was born in 1215 and lived nearly 100 years. The saint is often depicted with wings on his back, with which he reputedly flew back and forth to Jerusalem, and a severed leg, cut off by Satan to prevent Tekla praying, whereupon he stood on one leg for seven years.

It is advisable to carry an acceptable torch guaranteed not to harm the primitive frescos and wall paintings. Also, the priests attending – and pilgrims milling about – may want tipping so a supply of small denomination notes is useful.

Ethiopia has its challenges, but it is a ‘must see’ for all true travellers. There are some unusual hotels; welcoming people and, surprisingly enough, highly recommended wines. With its ancient evocative names of Cush, Put and Abyssinia, modern Ethiopia is an historic treat.