The 'Galapagos Islands' of Religion ; Ethiopia: Where Christians and Jews Evolved Unique Relationships

By Marjorie Coeyman, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 3, 2000 | Go to article overview

The 'Galapagos Islands' of Religion ; Ethiopia: Where Christians and Jews Evolved Unique Relationships


Marjorie Coeyman, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


It's early Sunday morning, and there's still a chill in the air as Addis Ababa slowly awakens. But behind the seemingly quiet walls of one of the city's sleepy streets stirs a scene of unexpected activity.

There, in a compound comprised of makeshift buildings and a few dusty stretches of yard, several hundred people are gathered. The adults - half-obscured in a sea of white shawls - are bent forward to the wail of morning prayer. The children are joined in a circle, singing a simple song in Hebrew.

These are the members of Beta-Israel (house of Israel), also known as the Ethiopian Jews, or Falashas (foreigners). They've gathered here, at this compound, financed largely by Jews abroad, to worship together, to study Hebrew, and most importantly, to work toward immigration to Israel.

Many of these people say Ethiopia is no home to them, that they have been rejected by their neighbors because of their religious practices, and they long to make their way to a country where they will find acceptance.

Yet, it is a strange irony of history that any Jew should feel an outsider in Ethiopia. Of all the countries in the world, there is perhaps no other where Judaism and Christianity have come as close as they have in this sub-Saharan nation.

"In terms of life and customs and culture, Ethiopian Christians are the only ones in the world with this close affinity to Jewish culture and law," says Ephraim Isaac, professor of religion and African studies and director of the Institute of Semitic Studies at Princeton University, N.J.

Mingling of two cultures

The mingling of the two cultures is almost as ancient as the roots of civilization itself. Ethiopian legend proudly insists on a foundational link to ancient Israel, pointing to the Biblical account of the journey of the Queen of Sheba to meet King Solomon in Jerusalem. The Ethiopians claim the queen as one of their own, and say the two monarchs conceived a son, King Menelik I, who became the head of a dynasty which ruled Ethiopia for almost 3,000 years.

Modern historians discount this version of events, and most now believe the Queen of Sheba came from Arabia. But regardless of the truth of the legend, there is no disregarding the Semitic elements that have permeated Ethiopia.

They appear most dramatically in the faces of the Ethiopian people, many of whom display a striking mix of Semitic and black African features. (The Ethiopians - famed throughout history for their beauty and grace - have such a distinctive appearance that some travelers to the continent say that Africans divide into four groups: black, white, Arab, and Ethiopian.)

Semitic influence appears also in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia and the modern version of Ge'ez, an ancient tongue with Hebrew roots. But it is in religion that the blending of the two traditions has been most powerful. Half of all Ethiopians practice the country's unique style of Orthodox Christianity, a religion curiously melded with Judaism.

Common practices were in evidence centuries ago. Up through the Middle Ages, the Ethiopian Christian church celebrated the Sabbath on Saturdays. In a complex of royal buildings constructed in Gondar in the 17th century by the Christian King Fasiladas, is a bath designed for ritual purification, built to the exact specifications found in the book of Leviticus.

Ethiopian Christians still practice circumcision and have dietary restrictions similar to many Jews. And at the center of their worship is the Ark of the Covenant. Every Ethiopian church keeps hidden in a holy inner chamber a replica of the ark.

Many Ethiopians also believe that the original ark has been lying quietly for centuries in a church in their northern city of Axum (see story left).

At the same time, Ethiopia's Jews practice a unique brand of Judaism strongly marked by Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. …

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