Legends have it that the Apostle Matthew went to Ethiopia to evangelize the people and eventually died there. History somehow differs. Christianity arrived in Ethiopia thanks to Syrian missionaries. The first two, unwilling, missionaries were Aedesius and Frumentius, two brothers from Tyre who shipwrecked near Adulis, in the Red Sea, at the beginning of the 4th century. They were taken prisoners and brought before the king in Axum. Aedesius rose to be chief steward of the king, Frumentius became the king personal secretary and treasurer. At the death of the king, they kept their duties under the queen mother until the young prince Ezana was old enough to ascend to the throne. During these years, they shared their faith with people at court, and baptized those who wanted to become Christians.
Having won the trust of the new king, the two brothers were instrumental in building a few churches for the growing community – there was also a community of Roman merchants some of whom were Christians – and ask assistance to the Patriarch of Alexandria. Frumentius went to Egypt to meet the Patriarch Athanasius to ask for clergy. Athanasius consecrated him bishop and sent him back to Ethiopia. St. Frumentius is known in Ethiopia as Abba Salama, Father of peace, and Kesate Berhan, Revealer of light.
he end of the 5th century, a group of monks from Syria settled in Ethiopia. They were instrumental in translating the Bible into Ge’ez, which by then had become the official language of the kingdom, and in introducing monasticism. The Ethiopian Church followed the Coptic tradition of Alexandria, which rejects the decision issued by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ were equally present in one person. The Coptic and Ethiopian Churches held that the human and divine natures were equally present within a single nature. This belief was considered heretical by Roman and Greek Churches. The result was that the Coptic Church was cut off from dialogue with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches until the mid-20th century, when many of the theological differences were resolved through ecumenical dialogue.
The Patriarch of Alexandria was in charge of appointing the Archbishop (Abuna) to head the Ethiopian Church. This was always an Egyptian Coptic monk. In time, this arrangement created a rivalry with the native Itshage (abbot general) of the strong Ethiopian monastic community. Ethiopian monks tried repeatedly to shake off Egyptian Coptic control. It was only in 1950 that an Ethiopian monk was appointed as Archbishop, and in 1959 an autonomous Ethiopian Patriarchate was established, although the Church continued to recognize the honorary primacy of the Coptic patriarch.
n Coptic Church became firmly established in the highlands, among the Amhara and Tigray peoples, and developed a strong connection with the royal house. The Church exercised a profound influence on the people and provided the King with the fairytale of Solomonic origin. The Queen of Sheba, who visited Solomon in Jerusalem, had a child from him. This was Menelik I, who became the first emperor of Ethiopia. The story, based on a few biblical accounts, was fabricated to give the royal house a divine-like status. When power changed hands, the monks were more than eager to find in their archives evidence tha
t the new royal family had blood links with Menelik’s line, keeping intact the Solomonic descent. Under the Amhara-dominated Ethiopian monarchy, the Ethiopian Orthodox church was declared to be the state church of the country, and it was a bulwark of the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie I
The Church received extensive
agrarian property and the numerous churches and sanctuaries became the focus of pilgrimages. The monasteries became also places of learning and of mysticism. The Church allows married clergy. The monks, who are not married, can choose to devote their lives to prayer or to higher learning. The great number of religious scrolls, mostly illuminated, kept in monasteries is the gauge of the work done in centuries. Monasticism is widespread, and individual monasteries often teach special subjects in theology. Each community also has its own school, which until 1900 was the sole source of education.
Today, after the abolition of the monarchy and the dark years of Menghistu’s regime, the Coptic Church in Ethiopia continues to be an influential body for the lives of millions of Ethiopians. The two millennia of Christian heritage are witnessed by a rich patrimony of churches and monasteries, many of great historical and artistic importance. These sacred spaces watch over much of Ethiopian highlands. They are inhabited by people who, with their monastic life, give a different dimension to the life of the whole community. Their ways are not yet touched by modernity, and seem to emerge from a remote past.