Ethiopia has to be the most unusual country in Africa, or at least it seems so to me after having traveled to a dozen African countries, north, south, east, and west. It can claim 3,000 years of continuous history (probably more) which means that its history has run longer than any country in the world except for China. Ethiopia’s semi-legendary origins goes back to Solomon and Sheba, whose proper name is Makeda. Sheba – more properly referred to as Saba – once comprised what is now Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, and western Yemen. Saba was as much a queendom as kingdom. In the Song of Solomon, the queen of Sheba, or a stand-in for her, said of herself “I am black and comely oh ye daughters of Zion”. A son was born of this “communion’ between Solomon and Sheba (Makeda) named Menelik and when he attained the age of manhood, he journeyed to Israel and met his father, Solomon. When Menelik returned home, he carried the Ark of the Covenant with him which the Ethiopians say is still in Ethiopia. He is considered the first king of the “Solomonic” line that ruled Ethiopia until Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974. No other Ethiopian king took the name Menelik until Menelik II toward the latter part of the 19th century, the king who defeated the Italians at Adowa in 1896, a red letter date in Ethiopian history. The Ethiopians are fiercely proud of the fact that they have never been colonized, though temporarily defeated by Mussolini’s army in 1935 armed with modern weaponry the Ethiopians lacked. Aided by the British, the Fascists were driven out in 1941.
These people are Christians like I have never seen. It is hard to describe. Their form of Christianity is called Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and they date the introduction of Christianity in Ethiopia to the baptism of the Ethiopian minister of Candace, Queen of Cush, by the Apostle Philip as recounted in the Book of Acts. Full conversion took place under the Emperor Azana in the 4th century AD by the Phoenician Saint Frumentius sent to Axum by the Bishop of Alexandria. Ethiopia had been known as Axum since the 5th century BC and the ruins and remnants of the Axumite empire are still there. Today, Ethiopians are completely devout. Christianity suffuses their lives in every way and they have defended it for more than 14 centuries against Jewish and Muslim attempts to overrun the country. The Jews of Ethiopia, led by their queen Judith, succeeded for a time in conquering and ruling Ethiopia but were eventually conquered in their turn by the Christian Ethiopians.
Contemporary Ethiopians are not evangelical in the manner evident among fundamentalists in America. Muslims comprise 30% of the population and both religious camps have learned to live and let live vis-à-vis one another. Most Ethiopian Jews, the Beta Israel, have emigrated to Israel because they were severely persecuted under the Marxist regime of Mengistu. Ethiopians churches are magnificent and their religious architecture is completely unique, as is seen in the well-known cruciform church cut into the ground out of living rock in Lalibela. In Lalibela and in Axum one finds stone work in religious buildings entirely comparable to what I have seen in the ruins of ancient Egypt. These people were skilled builders not excelled anywhere. In Axum too, one finds obelisks that are very reminiscent of those found in the temple of Karnak. Axum was, in fact, my favorite place in Ethiopia because of the marvelous architecture, though fine ancient buildings can be found throughout the country.
The Ethiopians themselves are a very attractive people. Herodotus nearly 25 centuries ago called them the “handsomest of people”. They tend to be slender and lightly built but one thing that struck me very forcibly, even on the first day, was that nobody smokes, neither men nor women. That apparently shows the pronounced influence of their priests who basically forbid it. They drink wine and beer – especially the honey wine called tef – but they avoid tobacco.
The other thing that is striking is the physical affection friends show one another. Male friends will walk hand-in-hand or hand-over-shoulder on the street as will female friends. Americans seeing two men walking hand-in-hand on the street in this country will perforce reach an immediate conclusion about the relationship between the two men. Doesn’t even compute in Ethiopia.
There are both priests and nuns in the clergy of Ethiopia. I don’t know about the nuns (should have asked) but the priests do marry. However, if widowed they will retire from life and become hermits in a remote mountain habitat or enter a monastery. One reason I felt a certain resonance with the religious observances is that when praying or entering a church to receive the priest’s blessing, they invariably make the sign of the cross. I suppose it is one reason that Catholics often feel at home in Ethiopia. That and the elaborate pageantry of religious services. Moreover, the Ethiopians do have a “pope”, referred to as the “patriarch”. He used to come invariably from Alexandria (Egypt) and the Coptic church there until about 1955 when, under Haile Selassie, the Ethiopians decided it was time for an Ethiopian to be Patriarch of the Ethiopian church.
Ethiopians consider Addis Ababa to be “the capital of Africa”. Somehow, that too resonated especially since, under Haile Selassie’s patronage, the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity – now called the African Union – is situated there. Other African peoples or nations might find the designation presumptuous but those of us on the tour could kind of see the point. Ethiopia tends to affect one that way.
This is probably enough (too much?) for now but there is rather more that could be said and described. But yes, I will go back. There is more to see and experience; I want to understand more about the country. Hardly anyone now would know it but Ethiopia was at one time a major geopolitical epicenter of world history and events. But Ethiopia has a way of seeping into one.