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Psalm 68, written for King David around 1000 BC (BCE), says that "Ethiopia shall reach out her hand unto God." The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was founded by the monks Frumentius and Aedissius in the early fourth century, during the reign of King Ezana of Axum (Aksum), who converted to Christianity along with many of his people. The two Christian youths from Syria, Frumentius and Aedusius, were found on a ship on the Axumite coast. They were taken to the emperor in Axum. When they become older, they were employed in the royal court, where Frumentius eventually became the king’s secretary and treasurer. King Ezana later sent Frumentius to Alexandria with instructions to bring back a bishop from the Egyptian Coptic Church.
Frumentius was consecrated bishop in Alexandria, returning to Ethiopia to be its first bishop. Instead of an Egyptian bishop, the Patriarch of Alexandria decided that Frumentius himself would be more suited to minister to the people of Axum, since he knew their language and culture and had already converted many. So Frumentius was appointed the kingdom’s first archbishop, with the ecclesiastical name of Abuna Selama (‘Father of Peace”). In AD 330 Christianity was declared the state religion and Frumentius spent the rest of his life converting the people from Judaism of Paganism.
In fact, the Ethiopian Church exists today as self-governing, though it traditionally shares the same faith with Egypt's Coptic Church. Until 1955, its Patriarch was a Coptic bishop sent from Alexandria, though since that time a native Ethiopian has been the Abuna, or Patriarch. The second ranking hierarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the Abbot of the Debre Libanos Monastery, reflecting the importance of monasticism in Ethiopia.
In terms of doctrine, the Coptic Church separated from the early Orthodox Church in AD 451 after the Council of Chalcedon over the former's adherence to the Monophysite doctrine. This issue concerned the Person of Christ --obviously an important matter to Christians-- which Orthodox Christians believe to have two distinct natures, one divine and one human, whereas the Monophysites believed Christ has a divine nature in which the human nature is contained. At that time, most Christians were Orthodox; the Patriarchate of Rome was not yet separated from the Eastern patriarchates. Coptic liturgical and sacramental practices remain similar to Orthodox ones, though the usage follows the ancient Alexandrian rite rather than the Byzantine rite.
The Ethiopian Church was the state religion of imperial Ethiopia, and is in communion with the other Non-Chalcedonian Churches, namely the Coptic Church of Egypt, the Syrian Church (the so-called Jacobite), the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Syrian Church of India.
The historical heritage and theology of the Ethiopian Church tradition has had its own interesting developments. Many practices related to ancient Judaism --such as veneration for a representation of the Ark of the Covenant in every Church-- are unique to the Ethiopian Church. On the altar of Ethiopian churches there is a miniature facsimile of the tabot, one of the tablets of the Ark of the Covenant, which Ethiopians believe is preserved in their country. Ethiopian icons are colorful works of art depicting traditional Orthodox saints, such as early martyrs, but Ethiopian saints as well, and have their own distinctive style.
Most of the Christian churches of the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean are Orthodox, rooted in the early Christian church, whose liturgical and sacramental practices are unchanged in twenty centuries. The Patriarchate of Rome (the Papacy) was in communion with other Orthodox, but separated from the Eastern Churches in the eleventh century over political as well as theological issues. Today, the Orthodox Church exists without the changes of Catholicism or the subsequent deletions of Protestantism.
The Ethiopian Church enjoyed a great deal of autonomy even when its Patriarch was sent from the Coptic Church of Egypt. While the Ethiopian Orthodox are not in direct canonical communion with the Orthodox of Greece, Constantinople, Russia, Ukraine, Antioch, and other jurisdictions, they are embraced fraternally to the extent that some of these churches allow their priests to administer the sacraments to the Ethiopian Orthodox. Outside Ethiopia, it is not unusual for Ethiopian Orthodox to attend services at these other Orthodox churches.
Great strides have been made in recent years of reconciliation between the Non-Chalcedonian Churches and the Orthodox Church. In the 1970s the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria stated that his Church accepted that Christ is fully human as well as divine, which is an important statement. This has not yet resulted in the healing of the schism, but dialogue continues, and representatives of the Patriarchate of Constantinople have recently visited the Ethiopian Church.
There exist in certain countries, particularly in the United States, "Ethiopian" or "Abyssinian" churches which attract African-Americans. The theological heritage of these churches is essentially Baptist or, in some cases, Pentecostal. These congregations have no connection with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Their name reflects the fact that in times past 'Ethiopian' was often synonymous with 'African.'


According to Ethiopian tradition, the Ark of the Covenant is preserved in the ancient holy city of Aksum. For centuries, the great relic was kept in the Church of Mary of Zion, where the emperor Iyasu is recorded as having seen it and spoken to it in 1691. Now it is kept in the Chapel of the Tablet, which was built beside the church during the reign of the last emperor Haile Selassie. The relic is entrusted to a single guardian, who burns incense before it and recites the Biblical Book of Psalms. No one else can approach it, including the high priest of Aksum. The guardian is not only a monk, but a virgin as well, and he serves the Ark until he appoints a successor as his own death approaches.
The classic account of the Ark in Ethiopia is found in a medieval epic written in Geez, The Glory of Kings. It describes how the Queen of Sheba had heard that King Solomon possessed great wisdom, and traveled to Jerusalem so that she could learn to govern her own people more wisely. When she arrived, Solomon was impressed by her intelligence as well as her beauty. He began to hope that he might have a child by her, although the epic is anxious to tell its readers that the king was not driven by lust, but by a plan to fill the earth with sons who would be serve the God of Israel. The queen did conceive a son, and after he had grown he set out from Ethiopia to visit his father. Solomon anointed him as king of Ethiopia, and then instructed the elders of Israel to send their own sons to Africa to serve him as counselors. Because the young Israelites were desperately unhappy that they would never see Jerusalem and its Temple again, they decided to carry the Ark with them. In fact, The Glory of Kings tells us that the Ark itself had decided to leave Jerusalem because the Jews had abandoned the faith that God had revealed to them.
The epic provides a history for two essential themes of the medieval Solomonid dynasty: the descent of the royal family from King Solomon, and the presence of the Ark of the Covenant as proof of the sanctity of the Ethiopian state. One of the great mysteries of this epic was when it was written, and when the tradition of the Ark in Ethiopia began. We know from the evidence of coins and inscriptions that the ancient kings of Aksum were pagan until the 4th century A.D., when they converted to Christianity. There is no evidence that they claimed descent from King Solomon or that they were especially interested in the Ark of the Covenant. The earliest report that the Ark had been brought to Ethiopia appears at the end of the 12th century, when an Armenian named Abu Salih wrote in Arabic at Cairo that the Ethiopians possessed the Ark of the Covenant, and that it was carried by a large number of Israelites descended from the family of King David, who were white and red in complexion and had blond hair. While popular writers have claimed that Abu Salih is clearly stating that the Ark was carried by a mysterious band of Europeans rather than by Ethiopians, his account cannot be interpreted in this way. In the Song of Solomon, we read that Solomon possessed white and red cheeks and hair like fine gold. Abu Salih seems to be relying on the authority of the Bible to describe a people that he had never seen himself but who were said to be related to the kings of Israel.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Ark that Abu Salih describes is its decoration. Crosses would be a very unusual feature for an ancient Israelite Ark, although medieval Christian artists did often assume that if Christianity were the true faith the Ark would quite naturally have displayed its central symbol. If his account is reliable, it would seem that Abu Salih is describing a later Christian Ark. Even though an ancient wooden box could have survived in the dry air of a sealed Egyptian tomb, the humidity of the Ethiopian rainy season would be very damaging. The question therefore arises of whether an Ark might have decayed in Ethiopia, but the stone Tablets of Moses for which the Ark of the Covenant had been made would survive unharmed. In fact, the earliest accounts by foreign travelers in Ethiopia refer to a Tablet rather than an Ark, and the research undertaken for the recent book published by Roderick Grierson and Stuart Monro-Hay has revealed that the clergy at Aksum also describe the great relic as a Tablet rather than an Ark. They use the word sellat, which means 'tablet', rather than tabot, which could mean either 'ark' or 'tablet'.
The ambiguity of the word tabot has made the question of the Ark in Ethiopia very difficult to understand. Not only is it used for the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament, it is also used for the Tablet at Aksum, and for the tens of thousands of altar tablets in every Ethiopian church. Each of these altar stones, on which the sacraments of the Christian liturgy are consecrated, is believed to be a replica of the Ark. In fact, each one is believed actually to be the Ark. This has meant that foreign travelers in Ethiopia have often understood Ethiopians to be talking about the Ark of the Covenant described in the Old Testament when they are really speaking about a tabot in a local church. The rich symbolism that surrounds the tabot and the Ethiopian traditions about the Ark is a source of mystical inspiration for the Ethiopian church in the liturgy, and especially during the great processions such as Timkat or Hedar Seyon, festivals that commemorate the Baptism of Christ in January and the arrival of the Ark in November. It is this tradition of profound spirituality that is the key to understanding the nature of Ethiopian claims about the Ark.
While sacred stones marking the covenant between God and man have survived in Mecca for at least sixteen centuries, and while there is no reason why an ancient stone tablet could not have survived at Aksum as well, the clergy in Aksum clearly believe that more than one Tablet or Ark can be the real and true Ark. As a careful reading of the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Bible also reveals evidence of more than one Ark, the Ethiopian tradition should not be thought to be impossible or incredible. It seems that the Ark really is at Aksum, but in a way that is more surprising than most writers on the subject have assumed.

The monk who is said to guard the Ark of the Covenant 24 hours a day is the only person allowed seeing it. He nominates his successor with his dying breath.


In many aspects of Ethiopian life, no other symbol is as dominant as the cross. An important aspect of Ethiopian culture, crosses are used in numerous ceremonies, performances, and festivals, including the annual Timkat celebration. Some of the more prominent crosses include the Processional Cross, the Hand Cross, and the Pectoral Cross.
The Processional Cross is the largest and arguably the most elaborate Ethiopian cross. Once held above the heads of the crowds in church processions, this cross was made of brass, silver, wood, and occasionally gold. There was no limit to the imagination of the artisans who created Processional Crosses, which could be round, diamond or pear shaped, gilded, or inscribed; and they often bore a picture of the Virgin Mary.
The Priests' Cross, also called the Hand Cross, was much smaller and less elaborate than the Processional Cross. Made of silver, iron, or wood, the priests would hold the this cross in their hand or tie it to a string and wear it around their neck while blessing members of the congregation. Because it was not common practice to decorate a Priests' Cross, the name of the owner was often the only mark upon it.
The Pectoral Cross, also called the Neck Cross, was much smaller than both the Processional and the Priests' Cross. These crosses, secured by a blue string or cord, adorned the necks of the faithful. Many people received their Pectoral Cross at baptism. Made from silver, iron, horn, and occasionally gold, Pectoral Crosses were often functional, serving as everything from lockets to earwax extractors. As with the Processional Cross, the sky is the limit when it came to shape and decoration.

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