Religions of Ethiopia
Ethiopia is an important country for all the three book- religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Since the Ark of the Covenant had arrived in the Axumite Empire the country was believed to be a chosen land from the beginning amongst the early Jewish settlers. As one of the first countries in the world, Ethiopia got Christianity as a state religion around 340 A.D.
Two Syrian Christians influenced on King Ezana who converted to Christianity then. He built the first church in Axum and minted coins with a cross instead of other symbols. In the fifth century nine monks from different parts of the Roman Empire came to Ethiopia and built a lot of churches and monasteries.
They are still known as the nine saints. The Christian emperors took over the legend of the Ark of the Covenant and therefore referred to their descent of King Salomon. So the Jewish David Star became almost as important as a symbol as the Christian cross, thus the combination of both symbols were used as a royal badge.
Also most ceremonies, the cult around the Ark (The heart of every church is a copy of the Ark called “Tabot”, hidden in the holy of holies) and the whole Christian tradition are strongly influenced by the earlier Jewish practices and believes.
The geographic isolation of the Ethiopian highlands and the custom to built churches out of the rock might have been a reason why the Christian Church has resisted all attempts to be destroyed and has been cemented and inseparable chained with the country’s leaders and daily life.
In the 11th to 12th century, after decades of terror towards the Christians by Queen Yudit, the Zagwe dynasty, probably from Jewish origin, came to power. The emperors were no descendents of Salomon but they strongly promoted Christian faith by building up a strong new capital with 11 marvellous rock-hewn churches, designed as a “New Jerusalem”. The town was later called after the most productive king, “Lalibela”.
The period of reign was relatively short. In 1270 the Solomonic dynasty took over again, created important and mythic books like the “Kebra Negast” (Glory of Kings), paintings, crosses, church music etc. At the same time Islam became stronger and the two religions clashed various times in the following centuries.
The prophet Mohammed himself had sent some of his closest friends and his wife to Ethiopia in 615 A.D., because they were persecuted in Arabia. The Ethiopian king protected them and allowed them to settle in peace at Negash (Tigray region near Wukro).
Mohamed was very grateful and excluded Ethiopia explicitly from the holy war. Negash and Harar are still under the most important Muslim pilgrimage places. Nevertheless Ahmed the left handed attacked and destroyed big parts of Christian Ethiopia until he was killed in 1543 with the help of Portuguese Jesuits. Several battles had to be fought with Muslims of the east and pagans of the south and west until Christianity could be re- established.
The later Emperors tried often to maintain peace by intermarriage with Muslims and concessions. Today the eastern parts around Harar, Bale Mountains and Afar are mainly Muslim while the rest of the Ethiopian highland is mainly Christian in the north and mixed in the southern and western part.
A big group of Ethiopian Jews, called “Falasha”, descendents of the early Jewish immigrants, has lived since millennia in the north- western Amhara Region. Between 1985 and 1991 most of them were airlifted to Israel. Nowadays only a handful of Jewish women and children remain around the village of Woleka, north of Gondar.