January 22, 2011

Christians in Ethiopia

Distance is everything in history and religion. Sounds like an odd comment? Consider the Christian Church in Ethiopia for a moment. What I'm writing is based on Diarmaird McCulloch's history of Christianity, but what McCulloch notes about Ethiopian Christianity is fascinating. It exposes the effects of distance and location on relgious thinking. There are two stories about Ethiopian conversion: Acts Chapter 8 recounts the baptism of a eunuch servant of an Ethiopian Queen in Egypt by Phillip. Our first historical account of an Ethiopian Christian regime is from the fourth century though, and here it is not from Egypt but from Syria that Ethiopian conversion was achieved. A Syrian merchant, Frumentius, is supposed to have converted Ezana, King of Aksum to the faith. Despite this its links with Egypt dominated Ethiopian religion: an Egyptian nominee was the Abun (Bishop) in the church. The Ethiopians followed the Egyptians and the Syrians into Monophysitism: the belief that the three persons of God have the same nature and substance, rather than as Chalcedonite Christians believe simply having the same substance. Ethiopia therefore was endowed with both Syriac and Egyptian roots and contacts for its Christianity and those contacts continued, however tenuous and influenced the character of its faith.

Ethiopian Christianity partook of a Red Sea and Nile world. Ethiopia was briefly connected by conquest to Yemen and definitely by trade to the rest of the Roman world. During the seventh century the conquest of Africa and the Middle East by Muhammed for Islam changed the world entirely. In Europe the Meditereanean became a frontier. In Africa the world of the red sea and Nile was no longer a link for Ethiopia to Christianity but rather a block. So much so that in the 16th Century when Jesuits from the counter reformation finally broke through the Islamic barrier, they were shocked by Ethiopian practices such as circumcission and refraining from eating Pork. The Ethiopian church developed along very different lines to the Western or Eastern Churches. In part this was natural: church designs were different to accomodate heat. But in part this was a result of the lack of cultural cross pollination: Ethiopian church music was distinct and different from that used in the Western or Eastern Church. Most significantly long after it was abandoned elsewhere by Christians, the Ethiopians were interested in the Book of Enoch- something that provoked interest in seventeenth century England of all places!

I haven't gone through everything that McCulloch says about Ethiopian Christianity and what he says, I am sure, barely scrapes the surface of what we know about that culture. What is interesting though is the way in which the Ethiopian church attests to the importance of geography in the development of Christianity. Evangelised across a trade route commonly known in antiquity and then isolated from the rest of the Christian world by Islamic conquest: Ethiopia produced its own style of Syriac/Egyptian Christianity. It produced great stories of self denial (the monk Takla Haymanot for example who stood on one leg for a considerable proportion of his lif on his cell feeding on seeds brought by birds) and great monuments but had features which we don't see elsewhere. For a start a foreign bishop meant that monks became more important. In the 15th Century the Ethiopians decided that both the Sabbath and Sunday should be days of rest. We must not overstate this- during the 15th Century Ethiopian Christians rediscovered Europe and cross pollination restarted, including the important use of a French work of devotion from the 12th Century in Ethiopian monasteries in the 15th- but the Ethiopian church's different path through the centuries suggests both the ways in which geography influences history and the ways in which there are alternative possible models of Christianity.