A journey among the Coptic churches of Ethiopia. In search of the Christian roots…
Axum was Christian even well before much of Europe: from this point of view Ethiopia is also quite unique in Africa. Christianity, which according to the tradition of the Ethiopian church arrived in the country at Axum, from the times of the apostles, was indeed assumed as a religion of state already in the early fourth century AD. What is certain is that the penetration of Christianity into Ethiopia is not the case of a rebound from its spread in Europe but by independent ways, perhaps on the basis of ancient Ethiopia’s relationship with the Jewish world: according to our tradition, moreover, one of the Magi was black and would in fact have come from Ethiopia.
It is only at the end of the fifth century that Ethiopia was visited by missionaries who knew Greek and contributed to the development of that extraordinary monastic phenomenon that has in large measure been kept down to our own day. Starting with the bond that the Ethiopian Church had with the Patriarchate of Alexandria of Egypt from the very beginnings, Christianity spread in the country in the form of Coptic Orthodox. The entry of Islam into the scene, from the eighth century, did not prevent Christianity from playing a decisive role in Ethiopia’s history. Christianity is still today the dominant religion in the regions that have been central in Ethiopian affairs, that is, in the highlands and therefore in almost all the major cities also.
For centuries, Ethiopia has constituted, in practice, the only Christian kingdom outside of Europe, and Christianity was, until the last emperor Haile Selassie, the religion of the rulers of the only African country not to have known colonization, except for the brief period of Italian rule (almost insignificant in the face of independent Ethiopia’s ancient history). The relationship with the power of the Coptic church was not without shadows: its function was not, in fact, secondary in ensuring the submission of the extremely poor masses to the authority of the rulers: a tradition that the Coptic religious authorities struggle to overcome in the current framework also, formally democratic but highly repressive in fact.
However, deeply rooted in Ethiopian life and culture as it is (Christians account for nearly half of the population, as against 35% of Muslims), the Coptic Church has also succeeded in overcoming the ordeal of nearly two decades of persecution under the regime of Mengistu. Despite the many destructions that occurred in the course of the Christian-Muslim wars of the first half of the sixteenth century, the two millennia of Ethiopia’s Christian history are reflected in an impressive heritage of churches and monasteries, often of great beauty and artistic value, and found largely outside the major centers, frequently in secluded places when not entirely inaccessible. They are the fabric of a dimension of monastic life that seems to come from a remote past, scattered throughout large spaces and the impressive sceneries of Ethiopian geography, maintaining considerable proportions, and still not too altered by modernity. (L.M.)