Book Review: Reflections on the History of the Abyssinian Orthodox Tewahdo Church

by Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE on April 19, 2017

in Featured, Featured News, News

Semere Tesfamicael Habtemariam – Asmarino Independent – April 2017

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Here is a fascinating book, a delight to read but quite difficult to review. Written by a non- professional historian (an engineer by training turned into a political activist and historian to boot), it contains a great many insights without however following the historians´s craft of identification of sources and source criticism. It does a very good job of writing the history of the “Abyssinian Orthodox Tewahdo church” and carries out a sustained reflection on the same church. This is one of the rare books that attempt to study the history of the “Abyssinian Orthodox Tewahdo church” on its own terms. I am convinced that many others would be inspired to fine tune the paths laid out in the book.

Owing to the importance of the book and to the benefit of those readers who may not have the opportunity to get hold of it, I have organized my review as thoroughly as it is possible. I shall at first present the book chapter by chapter with some comments on the strength and weaknesses at the end of each chapter.

In the first introductory chapter the author discusses the aim of the book which s to explain the history, faith and main features of the Tewahdo Orthodox Church, which is the same Church in Eritrea and Ethiopia. The author informs the reader (p. 2) that he would refer to the Tewahdo Churches of Ethiopia and Eritrea as the Tewahdo Church or the Abyssinian Tewahdo Church. The language is not clear but to the author, the Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox churches are one and the same. And therefore, they could be studied at one go and be given a name that describes them both and that their adherents would feel comfortable. The question that I as a reviewer would like to raise is: would the majority of the Christians in Ethiopia accept the designation of their Church as Abyssinian?

The first chapter is a long introduction on the Orthodox Tewahdo Church of Abyssinia: Eritrea and Ethiopia. In this chapter the author defines the objectives of his reflections. He informs his reader that unless otherwise specified the Tewahdo Church would equally apply to both the Eritrean and Ethiopian Tewahdo Churches. The name “Tewahdo church adds the author has the dual advantages of transcending the various linguistic and cultural groups. The Ethiopian and Eritrean Tewahdo Churches are Abyssinian or Habesha. The major aim of the book is to encourage learning about the Tewahdo Church by the Tewahdo themselves as well as to inspire the millions of Abyssinians and Tewahdos everywhere to celebrate, cherish and reclaim their spiritual heritage through the right understanding of the Holy Apostolic Orthodox Tewahdo Church of Ethiopia and Eritrea or simply the Tewahdo Church or the Abyssinian Orthodox Tewahdo Church.

The Ethiopian and Eritrean Tewahdo Churches, writes the author (henceforth Semere), have the same history, theology, lineage, liturgy, ritual and are for all purposes and intent one Church. Semere then continues to define the origin and spread of Abyssinian Civilization a civilization closely connected to Geez as one of the three languages invented in Africa. Abyssinia is one of a handful of countries, which has successfully maintained its sovereignty and independence and has played a big role in the preservation and success of the Geez alphabet. The Geez alphabet and the civilization that sprouted from it, is a source of national pride for both Ethiopians and Eritreans.

Semere reminds the reader that alongside Georgia and Armenia, Abyssinia is one of the earliest states to declare Christianity its official religion, but unlike them, Abyssinia has preserved its core and deep Christian identity until present times. The Tewahdo church is not a carbon copy of any other church, but its own. The Tewahdo Church has the largest adherents of all the Oriental Orthodox Churches and is only second to the Russian Orthodox Church among the Eastern Orthodox families.

From the 1970s onwards, the Tewahdo Church has not lived up to its expectation of moral leadership. Semere stresses that the Tewahdo Chruch remains independent and autonomous. The case of autonomy may sound important but, according to my knowledge there is no evidence of autonomy in the history of the Church. Emperor Haile Selassie was undeniably a good friend of the Church and its most ardent advocate. He built the Theological College and established the Ethiopian Orthodox Mission in 1963, but he was also the head of the same Church.

The introduction section asks the question: what is it about the Ethiopian and Eritrean churches that makes them Tewahdo and Orthodox? Semere tells us that, (p.15) “it is through learning that the layers of ignorance are peeled–off, and the unadulterated and uncorrupted truth is discovered”. He further continues: “Beyond the confines of religious life, the Tewahdo religion is a source of cultural and civilizational identity, and this amalgamation is a subject worth exploring. Adopted as the official religion of the Aksumite kingdom in the 4th century, the church has become identified completely with the politically and culturally dominant Amhara-Tigray and, over the centuries, helped to maintain ethnic unity and identity (p.16).

And how did the Apostolic Tewahdo Orthodox Church succeed to keep and maintain the truth? Semere informs the reader (pp.16-17) that the “Abyssinian Church” is Apostolic namely as a guarantor of the authenticity of its articulation of the faith. Moreover, the Church is strictly monotheistic in its teachings that God is one and does not change and Orthodox in its unwavering commitment to preserve the doctrines, beliefs, and practices as revealed by the Father, taught by the Son and lived and witnessed by the Apostles and Disciples under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The section on the teachings and faith of the Abyssinian church is concluded by a couple of citations from the Old and New Testaments.

Semere then outlines the spread of the Christian faith from its epicenter in Syria but that it was through Africa that it became the religion of the world. He then turns his attention into the challenges that the Tewahdo church is facing due to proselytization efforts of the technologically more advanced and prosperous Western and non-Orthodox Churches. He refers mainly to Charismatic Churches (Protestant and evangelical). He accuses Europe for trying to spread Christianity through the sword during the colonial period and he sees similar wrongdoing when evangelism is accompanied by the mighty dollar and at the expense of the Tewahdo churches of Eritrea and Ethiopia. Europe and North America would continue to undermine the positions of the Tewahdo Church and if this hemorrhaging is going to stop the latter has to revitalize its modus operandi and remain relevant to the needs of the times. The Tewahdo Church has to invest in the education of its laity and it would need to maintain the highest intellectual standards if it is to withstand the challenges from all competing religions, denominations, science and secularism, and thrive in the centuries to come (p.24).

Largely based on the seminal work of Spencer Trimingham, Islam in Ethiopia, 1965, Semere describes the “Tewahdo Church” as an institution that has degenerated into a form of a higher tribal religion isolated in a sea of Islam (pp.24-5). Here I think that Semere does not seem to take note that Trimingham wrote more than 60 years ago and a great deal has happened ever since.

The author continues, the “Tewahdos” have a very long proud heritage; but lately the Church has not done a good job of educating its younger generation and instilling in them the self-awareness and pride which is rightfully theirs (p.26). In the next paragraph however, Semere writes that “today, the Tewahdo Church has, in its bosom, many sons and daughters who have excelled in a variety of academic disciplines and mentions the late Abune Paulos, the fifth Patriarch of Ethiopia as an embodiment of this positive change and emerging culture”. Like any other church the Tewahdo Church must go through periodic revivalist movement but the author warns at the same time that this need for revitalization should not be confused with evangelism and leans on a quotation from one of the principal works of evangelism, namely Kenisha: The roots and development of the Evangelical Church of Eritrea, 1866-1933, by Ezra Gebremedhin, 2011.

Finally, the “Tewahdos” (pp.27-8) must constantly scale the mountain in order to reach the summit with their soul intact and they have to be aware that the new religions originating in Europe and North America are trying to sell the same old wine in new bottles. The “Tewahdos” have had the same wine for almost two millennia.

In the following section of chapter one, Semere describes the history of the Abyssinian Tewahdo Othrodox Church since its formation in the early 4th century in Aksum. The two Tewahdo Churches of Ethiopia and Eritrea, writes the author, may reunite or continue to operate as two independent entities, but as long as they remain true to their Tewahdo Orthodox heritage the nominal separation would not hinder any progress. The Church, writes the author, should encourage or even require its priesthood to acquire language proficiencies in Amharic, Geez and Tigrinya. The Church, he further writes, might even go revolutionary by bringing back Geez, the common language of all Abyssinians – and lay down the ground work for a common intellectual renaissance that is quintessentially Abyssinian. (p.29).

In an increasingly changing and religiously diverse Abyssinia, the Tewahdos must promote an environment of understanding and tolerance, and particularly heed the ethical exhortation, (p30). This wish is in turn supported by a citation from the Bible.

The author then defines the terms Ethiopia, Abyssinia and Eritrea. He adds very little to what is commonly understood, while the terms Eritrea and Ethiopia are of Greek origin the term Abyssinia is the corruption of a native word Habesha. The author appears to argue that Ethiopia is a Greek word but is not sure as he in the next line presents another version where the term Ethiopia is derived from Aethiops, the son of Hephaestus (p.33). Semere is not clear as to how the name Ethiopia got accepted by the masses. He raises a couple of theories without however opting for one. But he accepts as fact that the word Ethiopia crept into Abyssinian lexicon in the fourth and fifth centuries (p.35). Here the author, according to me rightly brings in “the advent of Christianity and the desire on the part of the population to be part of Biblical Prophecy” (p35) as one of the reasons why the Aksumites adopted Ethiopia as a signifier.

The author writes that the Aksumites appropriated the tern Ethiopia for themselves as early as the fourth century. He based his position on the trilingual inscriptions of Ezana (king of Aksum and some other provinces in southern Arabia) as interpreted and explained by Juri Kobischchanov, one of the first archaeologists to write on the civilization of Aksum. The author further delves into the origin of the term Abyssinia and how the Ethiopian people relate to it. He quite rightly states that the people identify themselves as Abyssinians but describe their country as Ethiopia. However, the author does little to resolve the question as to the origin and meaning of the term Abyssinia, although he does a good job in putting all the various explanations.

The section on Ethiopia sketches the historical trajectories of Ethiopia/Abyssinia with heavy emphasis on the role of Aksum and Tigray in the making of the country. The section is quite bulky and not structured and could have benefitted from a drastic editing. In contrast the section on Eritrea is quite brief indeed. The present day Eritrea, or most of it, writes the author, was simply known as the land beyond the river Mereb or simply Habesha. The Ethiopian/Habesha territories occupied by Italy in 1889/90 were given the name of Eritrea – after the Erythrean Sea. The word is Greek for the red algae in the coastlines of the Red Sea.

Semere writes that the Eritreans, particularly in the Christian highlands, seem to like the name Eritrea because they thought it was taken out of the Bible. This brief section on Eritrea is concluded with a paragraph loaded with interpretations that reflect a high degree of bias without any mitigating explanations. It is worthwhile to use an extensive quote in order to show the dangers of highly selective use of sources.

“With the advent of Italian colonization, Eritrea experienced an improvement in its economic and security life. Italian rule brought about “a degree of unity and public order in a region marked by cultural, linguistic and religious diversity” and one of the most important developments during the post-1889 period was the growth of an Eritrean public administration” (Turner, 1993:36). Eventually this transformative experience became the basis of Eritrea´s quest for nationhood. … The failure to understand this reality on the parts of Ethiopia and its enablers, the West, has led to more than three decades of bloody conflict which had made Ethiopia and Eritrea two of the least developed countries in Africa. The Italians gave birth to Eritrea and to Eritrea´s nationalism” P.48).

A great deal has been written and said on the origins and development of Eritrean nationalism. As a reviewer I wished that the author devoted space to the more nuanced states of mind that prevailed in Eritrea since the 1940s. The Eritreans, whom the author singles out as Habesha, Orthodox, and Tewahdo Christians were not affected by the transformative policies of Italian colonization. The choice of Turner as a main source is highly unfortunate because we know the circumstances under which he wrote – the aftermath of Eritrean independence and for the United States government. The author is fully cognizant of this aspect of Eritrean history especially since the prolific and pungent articles of Yoseif Gebrehiwet who has emphasized repeatedly how Italian colonization damaged the Habesha/Eritrean psyche without replacing it with something sustainable.

Semere concluded the introduction by pointing out an accusatory finger at the politicization of ethnicity that is prevalent both in Eritrea and Ethiopia. “Federalizing a nation along the lines of ethnicity is to plant the seeds of future balkanization; no wonder Ethiopia has consistently scored high on the Failed State List. It is not wise to institutionalize differences. Ethiopia and Eritrea should be structured where the dream of E pluribus unum [unity in diversity] can be realized. The pan-ethnic term Habesha, was not a negation of particular differences, but a celebration of the shared history, culture and intermingling which evolved naturally; bringing people together to forge one identity” (p.50).

And finally, the author wrapped up this long and rumbling introduction by exhorting the reader to believe that “Habeshaness” has superseded Eritrean, Ethiopian, Amhara or Tigrayan and these people are united under the Tewahdo Church.

I have devoted a great deal of space to the first chapter because it is very important and because it sets the tone for the rest of the book. However, before I proceed further I wish to comment on the choice of the term Abyssinian instead of Ethiopian. I have great sympathy for the good intentions of the author to switch Ethiopia for Abyssinia in order to highlight the common foundation of the Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Churches. But I am afraid I cannot get used (I have tried hard since I got the book) to the switch from Ethiopian to Abyssinian. Here are my reasons. The majority of the Abyssinians indeed belong to the Orthodox Tewahdo Church but nearly 50 percent of the Oromo share the same faith. To opt for Abyssinian is to deny the orthodox faith of millions of people who are not Abyssinians. Moreover, I think one can argue that while Abyssinia and Abyssinians refer to a specific people and region, Ethiopia and Ethiopians refer to diverse people and region. The terms Ethiopia and Ethiopians are more inclusive than Abyssinia and Abyssinians. It is probably for this reason that both the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church and the Ethiopian state have through the centuries consistently used the terms Ethiopia and Ethiopians. A nation that opted to identify its faith as Ethiopian and its habitat as Ethiopia as early as perhaps the 4th century would not easily give up its long cherished identity markers even for a noble intention of bringing into fold the Orthodox Tewahdo Church in Eritrea. There is certainly much more than a name in this case. I might be wrong and may be the times are changing; but these are, at the moment, my main comments on the choice of the title of the book.

Chapter two like the previous one is too unwieldy and covers a great deal of ground without a good structure. Leaving aside the issues of coherence and flow, the chapter opens with a description of the geographical and cultural position of Aksum – a civilization that straddled between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. At its zenith, the political territory of Aksum extended from Southern Egypt to the Indian Ocean in the east and large parts of southern Arabia to the northeast. Aksum according to Mani, the Persian philosopher and prophet (who founded a religion known as Manichaeism), was one of the great four powers at the time he wrote that is in the middle of the third century (p.52). Here Semere follows the dominant explanation as to the impact of Islam on the fate of Aksum. He writes that with the rise of Islam Aksum lost its regional hegemony.

Semere then jumps into the present and attempts to link the loss of the Red Sea with the current situation where Ethiopia, the home of the overwhelming majority of the Abyssinians has become landlocked. He further writes (p. 54) that most Abyssinians in Ethiopia have not been able to reconcile their maritime historical glory with modern realities. I am aware of similar arguments made by many contemporary authors but this line of thought ignores the fact that the Post-Aksumite Ethiopian state abhorred the lowlands and the sea.

Semere continues, one way to resolve this lingering conflict [primarily between Eritrea and Ethiopia] is to develop a comprehensive strategy that would eventually lead to regional integration (p.54). He calls for a new breed of leaders who envision a world beyond the artificial boundaries of a bygone colonial era since nations and boundaries are tools designed to help people work on the perennial concerns of peace, justice, development and human dignity (p.54). In barely two pages the author sketches the political history of Aksum through the centuries and manages to confront some of the fundamental causes of the intractable conflict between the states in the Horn of Africa where colonialism plays a crucial role. This section of chapter two in particular and the other sections in general expect the reader to be quite well informed on the main themes of Ethiopian [Abyssinian according to Semere] political cultural, social and religious history.

The section on Polytheism dwells briefly on the subject; mentions the legend when the Aksumites worshipped a serpent [python] and glides to the present where the Eritreans fare well in Abyssinian legends, fables and history. It was in Eritrea and an Eritrean who killed the serpent and mentions those Eritreans who fought on behalf of Ethiopia. Semere then writes that the gods worshipped in Aksum were the same as those worshipped in the South Arabian side of the Red Sea. Moreover, as Aksum was under the cultural sphere of the Hellenic civilization, the Aksumites inherited most of the Greek gods but soon indigenized them. For instance Ares, the god of war became Mahrem. Once again Semere leapfrogs into the present and claims that Muslims of the Horn have not been able to indigenize Islam (p.59). Yet few lines down Semere writes, “it is only recently that Muslims have accepted the translation of the Quran in Amharic and Tigrinya” (p.59) and sees it as a welcome initiative.

The short section on legends, myth, folktales and history is a brief description and explanation of the various concepts with legend as the most important item that needs to be explained. Semere writes that the central heroes of legends are human beings while the heroes of myths are the gods. The Kebra Nagast/Glory of Kings is such a legend that has played an important role in shaping the identity of Abyssinians and how they view their past, present and future society.

Quite rightly Semere devotes an entire subsection to Kebra Nagast [KN] and builds his narrative on old research. The Kebra Nagast is described as 14th century document, although he mentions that it might have been produced, according to some authors, in the 4th century. The description of the Kebra Nagast is not so well organized. The author dwells on whether the Queen of Sheba, the main protagonist of the Kebra Nagast was from Arabia or from Ethiopia. His argument that her ubiquitous existence in the popular psyche of the Abyssinians is by far the strongest evidence that the Queen is more Abyssinian than Yemenite is hardly convincing. The following section on the actual encounter between Solomon and Queen of Sheba [Makeda] is the major theme and not the political, ideological and historical implications of the KN.

Here according to me Semere appears to take for granted that Judaism was introduced into Abyssinia during the time of Queen of Sheba without any attempt on his part to consider the fact that there are no archaeological remains of Aksum at that early period, ie. 950 BC. How can one give credence to a story that took place about one thousand years before BC but is told at the earliest one thousand five years later? The Aksumites had no way of knowing the story of Queen of Sheba (Makeda) before the introduction of the Bible in the first half of the 4th century. The Bible is the main source for all the legends on Queen of Sheba that were developed later in the Middle East and Ethiopia.

Semere leaves his task as a critical reader of the history of the Tewahdo Church when he concluded the section of the Queen of Sheba as follows:

“Menelik arrived in Abyssinia in about 950 BC accompanied by the firstborn of Israel and the Tabernacle of the Law of God, which the latter found out was secretly taken by the firstborns. The people rejoiced at his return and embraced him as their kind. With the glory and splendor of the Tabernacle, Menleik assumed to govern his kingdom justly, wisely, and always fearing the God of Israel. This is how Judaism made Abyssinia home” (p.73). The Kebra Nagast was written at the earliest in the 6th century and in the 14th century according to Semere. How can the Kebra Nagast produce a credible narrative on a phenomenon that took place at least one thousand years before its composition?

Under a subsection: Other sources: Judaism preceded Christianity in Abyssinia, Semere raises several issues without however scrutinizing them sufficiently. Using Ullendorff as a source Semere wrote that some Jewish influence might have existed in Aksum before Christianity. Given the cultural interconnectedness between Aksum and the culture on the opposite side of the Red Sea, the presence of some Jews and perhaps some Jewish influence is indeed plausible. However, the question is the extent of the influence. I think we know far little of the Jewish presence in the southern part of Arabia until the beginning of the 6th century.

Semere then narrates the history of migration from the Yemen to Eritrea as a phenomenon that has continued since the early centuries BC and concludes with the most recent migration of the Rashayda into Eritrea about 200 years ago. This is followed by a very brief account of the relations between the Prophet Mohamed and Abyssinia where the latter occupies a privileged position because it provided asylum to close relatives of the Prophet at times of need. Whereas there exist several indicators that strengthen the veracity of the first encounter, the alleged letter of the Prophet to the king of Abyssinia cannot be relied upon.

Semere transgresses at times the boundaries of reflection and enters the domain of speculation without any sustained discussion for upholding a position. Here is an example: Semere writes: “Most Abyssinian Muslims, if not all, were once Christians, and it is not implausible to infer that some, if not most Christian Abyssinians, were once Jewish” (76). I believe most Muslims in Eritrea and especially in the Ethiopian regional state of Tigray would strongly contest the narrative by stating that they have been Moslems since the arrival of the relatives of the Prophet to their part of the world around 615 AD, that is five years after Prophet´s triumphal entry to Mecca in 622. Semere might have a counter argument but he has not put it where it ought to be. The same applies to the assumption that most Abyssinians were Jewish. It might be so but Semere dose not provide arguments in support of his assumption.

The section on the Judaic elements in the Tewahdo Church deals with the celebration of Sabbath (The Tewahdo celebrate both Saturday and Sunday), the style of worship, the dietary regulations, the architectural similarities between the Church and the temple (Synagogue) and circumcision. The chapter is concluded with a long citation of Emperor Gelawdewos (Claudius) who ruled from about 1541 to 1559 on the differences between Jewish and Ethiopian practices.

Chapter three opens with the question as to which country was the first to adopt Christianity. The author narrates that it was in Armenia that Christianity was first adopted as state religion followed by Georgia (formerly part of the Soviet Union) and in the third place was Aksum. Semere then discusses the dates as to when exactly Aksum became Christian. He agrees with those scholars who calim that Aksum became Christian between 328 and 339 AD.

Ezana was the first king to adopt Christianity and he was also the first monarch in the world to engrave the sign of the cross on his coins (p.89). One of the several insightful comments is the absence of Judaic symbols before the adoption of Christianity in Aksum. Semere writes: “There is nothing in the royal coins which show that the kings of Aksum were practicing Judaism as has been asserted by the Abyssinian national epic the Kebra Nagast. If the right to rule was based on Solomonic blood; it is hard to explain the complete absence of the Israelite God on the coins of Aksum” (p.89).

King Ezana adopted Christianity because of the teachings of Frumetius who was appointed bishop of Ethiopia by the patriarch of Alexandria in about 328 AD. The Orthodox Church in Askum has ever since been under the influence of the Coptic Church in Alexandria. And up to 1951, the head of the Ethiopian church, the Patriarch, was always an Egyptian appointed by the Holy See of St Mark in Alexandria. Semere does not discus in this section the process of independence of the Ethiopian Church from Alexandria.

He however discusses the relations between Rome and Aksum during the reign of Ezana. In a letter sent to Ezana, the Roman emperor Constantine asked Ezana to hand back the newly returned Bishop Frumentius for further questioning on his theological position. The issue was whether Frumentius followed the Arian theology (where Christ has two natures) or the Alexandrian doctrine where the nature of man and God were united in the body of Christ. Ezana refused to hand over his newly acquired bishop and thus demonstrated his capacity and power as an independent leader.

The arrival of Frumentius and Adesius is discussed on pages 96-106.
The story of the arrival of Frumentius is told by Tryannus Ruffinus who lived in the latter part of the 4th century and by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Semere does an excellent job; he took all the space needed to compare the two narratives that told the same story and more or less in the same way. The account by Ruffinus is more credible because it was based on the testimony of Adesius who was in Aksum together with Frumentius. Whereas the account by the Ethiopian Church is by definition less credible due to that fact that we do not have knowledge of when its was written. But here we encounter a very interesting dilemma: how did the Ethiopians get the chronology right? Ruffinus wrote in the beginning of 401 and in Latin. It is highly unlikely that the Aksumites had access to the book of Ruffinus. The only plausible explanation is that the Aksumites must have written it down more or less at the same time as Ruffinus.

Semere devotes a great deal of space as to when Frumentius, the first bishop of the Orthodx faith in Aksum, was appointed by Pope Athanasius of Alexandria. Here I think Semere could have consulted Ethiopian sources that have consistently maintained that that it was in the year 327 Ethiopian calendar (equivalent to 334/5 Gregorian) that Frumentius returned as Bishop.

The section on Frumentius is followed by brief sketch of notable Christians, namely Yared, the monk who created Ethiopian liturgy in the seventh century and Caleb (Kaleb) who defended Christians in Southern Arabiain the first half of the 6th century. There is very little connection with the section above.

After a rather exhaustive treatment on the introduction of Christianity in Aksum, Semere takes us back to the period before Aksum adopted Christianity as its official religion. He narrates, on the basis of the teachings of the Ethiopian Church that Philip the apostle baptized an Ethiopian somewhere in the desert between Jerusalem and Gaza. The Ethiopian was a high-ranking official of Queen Candace (Hendekie) the queen of Ethiopia. Semere appears to seriously believe that the “Ethiopian” baptized by the Apostle Philip was from Aksum. The belief of the Ethiopian Church notwithstanding, there is very little evidence to support that the Ethiopian who was baptized by Philip, the apostle was from Aksum. Candace (Hendekie) was a Nubian Queen. There is sufficient evidence to argue that Nubia and Meroe were stronger than Aksum during the first century AD. I am of the opinion that the Ethiopian Church appropriated the Ethiopian official of Queen Candace as it appropriated the name Ethiopia for itself.

Semere continues with the lives of two other Apostles, namely Mathew and Barhtolomew on the basis of the beliefs of the Ethiopian church. Here Semere is on his weakest. Instead of scrutinizing his sources, he goes a long way to give credence to them. An example: Mathew the apostle spent a great deal of his life preaching to the Jews outside of Israel. Since there were some Jewish communities in Aksum, Mathew might have preached to them (p.116). Such far-fetched reasoning is unfortunately more common in the third chapter than in the earlier chapters.

This long, unwieldy and poorly structured chapter is concluded by the biographies of two saintly men. The first Abba Yohani, founded the Monastery of Debra Libanos in Akeleguzay (Eritrea) in the middle of the 4th century. The second Abba Mata preached in Hawzien (Tigrai) and Eritrea. One of the interesting insights are the beliefs and traditions prevalent in present day Eritrea on the introduction of Christianity. For instance Semere mentions that the monstery of Debra Libanos in Akelguzay, Eriteea was by far the most important monastery until overshadowed by the Monastery of Debra Libanos in Shewa founded by Abba Teklehaimanot in the early 13th century.

Chapter four deals with the arrival of the nine saints to Aksum some time in the 5th century. Most of these saints were settled in and around Aksum preaching and most probably translating the Bible from Greek to Geez. On of the most known of the nine is Abba Germia who is believed to come from Rome. Abba Germia founded a monastery after his name located midway between Aksum and Adwa. The Ethiopian Church has always maintained that Abba Gerima wrote and illustrated the Gospels. A carbon dating of the Gospels proved that they were written sometime between 390 and 650 AD. Abba Gerima is believed to have been active in the greater part of the fifth century.

This brief chapter also includes a brief biography of St Yared, the priest/monk who singlehandedly created the liturgy still used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Chapter five is also brief and narrates as well discusses Aksum´s presence in Southern Arabia. The three periods of the supremacy of Aksum over Southern Arabia stretch from ca 80 to 570 AD. It was however during the 3rd and 4th centuries that Aksum had a firm control of the opposite side of the Red Sea. But Southern Arabia, easily reached as it were by emerging powers such as Persia, was not easy to govern. The Aksumites had to send armies and reinforcements regularly in order to main peace and stability. At the zenith of its power the kings of Aksum such as Ezana would describe themselves as the rulers of Himyar, Raydan, Sabeans, and Sahlin all on the other side of the Red Sea.

In the early decades of the 6th century, during the reign of King Kaleb there was a resurgence of Judaized kingdoms in the parts of Southern Arabia under Aksumite control. In 1520 one such Judaized king Dhu Nuwas invaded Ethiopian town of Zafar and massacred all those who refused to convert to Judaism. This open act of rebellion with its religious connotation demanded a response both from the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople and the Ethiopian Empire in Aksum. Upon receiving the information about the massacre, King Kaleb sent a military expedition and temporarily defeated Dhu Nuwas. But the rebellion continued and a couple of years later Dhu Nuwas entered the city of Najran and killed all Christians. For the second time King Kaleb, on the repeated request from the Emperor of the Roman Empire, sailed to Southern Arabia and captured and killed Dhu Nuwas. The victory of Kaleb over Dhu Nuwas was greatly appreciated by the Roman Empire and the Coptic Church in Alexandria. God sent Kaleb to revenge Christian blood shed at the cities of Zafar and Najran.

Here I would have wished that Semere reflected a little bit more on the implications of Kaleb´s victory on Kaleb himself and on Ethiopia. It was actually after Kaleb´s victory in southern Arabia that Psalm 81:32 Ethiopia stretches her hands unto God was fully appropriated by the Aksumites and accepted by the rest of the world. I think if Semere had not committed himself right form the outset on the Kebra Nagast as a 14th century document rather than a 6th century document written (among other things) in honor of Kaleb, he would have made the connection and he would also have found the sources such as Ifraim Shahid (1976), and David. W. Johnson (1995) in support of such interpretation.

In chapter six Semere writes on the history of Church education and literature
This is a very good chapter and superbly organized. In the first part Semere outlined the structure and content of Church education along the lines first developed by Girma Amare in the 1960´s. Church education is divided into two stages; primary and higher. Semere has named and provided a skeletal sketch of the structure and content of Church education [the entire program could take up to 30 years to complete] but there is very little on the complexity of the education and training. I suspect this is due to lack of readily accessible sources. The second part deals with the history of Ethiopian literature through the centuries. He divides Ethiopian literature into four periods. The first period, 328-640, saw the translation of the Bible whereas the second period, 7th to 13th centuries is according to Semere devoid of any literature.

Here once again, I believe Semere is a victim of his sources. The second period (7th to 13th centuries) is dominated by a new dynasty known as the Zagwe. The Zagwe rulers were constantly challenged and denied legitimacy by the supporters of the Aksmite dynasty. Towards the end of the 13th century, the Zagew were defeated by a group who identified themselves as the heirs of the Aksumite rulers of the old times. The post 13th century rulers called themselves as the restored or second Solomonic dynasty affirming lineage and continuity with the rulers of Aksum. The post 13th century rulers did what they could to underestimate the legacy of the Zagwe period. Aksum might have declined after the end of the seventh century but Ethiopian culture (literature, art and architecture) flourished and reached its peak or zenith towards the end of the 12th century with the construction of the Rock-hewn structures at Lalibela and other places. Moreover, the Zagwe must have maintained the literary tradition of the nine saints, even though we have no manuscripts from the Zagwe period.

The third period, 1261-1543) saw the production of royal chronicles and many other books on religion and religious matters. This tradition was followed in the fourth and last period, 1524-1757, with the publication of more chronicles and other literature among which the Fetha Nagast (Justice of Kings) and Serate Mengist (rules of government).

The chapter on education and literature also includes a section on the Ethiopian Bible and its 81 books. The presentation of the Ethiopian Bible and how it differs from the Catholic and Protestant ones would have been enough. But the author´s eagerness to show the differences in detail through tables is of little help. The tables from pages 183 to 187 are virtually impossible to read due to the size of the font and due to the fact they are not reworked by Semere himself but directly downloaded from the web.

Chapter seven discusses the Church hierarchy and monastic life. Whereas the section on church hierarchy is quite straight, Semere interprets the evolution and development of monasticism in a very dynamic way. Indeed not so much is known about monasticism prior to the 13th century. But the monastic landscape of the 13th century reflected the interconnectedness of religion and power. In the 13th century, there were two monastic orders in Ethiopia. The monastery at Debra Bizen (present day Eritrea) was the center of the Ewostatewos order and the monastery at Debra Libanos (some 120 kilometers southeast of Addis Ababa) was the center of the Abune Teklehaimanot order. Their location reflected very much the frontiers of the Ethiopian Christian state of the period. In the course of the following two centuries, the monks of Debra Bizen were to extend their spiritual influence well beyond the rolling highlands of northwestern Eritrea into the heartlands of northern Sudan. But unfortunately Semere does not discuss this aspect.

The chapter pays a great deal of attention to the biographies of the two founders of the monastic orders (Abba Ewstatewos and Abba Tekle Haymanot) with undue reliance on their hagiographies (written several centuries after their death). It makes interesting read but Semere ought to have warned the reader on the reliability of the biographies written on the basis hagiographies.

The chapter is concluded with a history of the Ethiopian Church and community in Jerusalem. Based on the monumental writings of Sylvia Pankhurst, (Ethiopia. A Cultural History,1955 and Enrico Cerulli, Etiopi in Palestina, 1943) Semere does a good job in sketching the ups ad downs of the Ethiopian Church and community in Jerusalem. He would, have benefitted more if he had included Edward Ullendorff in his reading who adds an interesting twist to the relations by dealing with the evolution of the myth of the land of Prester John. From the middle of the 14th century until the early decades of the 16th century, there was a wide spread belief that far beyond the Red Sea was a Christian kingdom ruled by priest kings known collectively as Prester John. There is a great reasons to suspect that the Ethiopian monks in Jerusalem contributed to the evolution of the myth.

The last chapter deals with relations between the various religions in the wider Horn in general and Ethiopia in particular. This is a chapter that takes in one stride the history of Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism and the close links between religion and politics. Semere informs the reader that Abyssinians were quite well established in Mecca before Islam and continues to narrate with good flourish the famous story of the close relatives of the Prophet Mohamed who sought refuge in Aksum five years before the latter´s triumphal entry to Mecca in 622 AD. Ethiopia/ Abyssinia was very kind to Islam, to the Prophet Mohammed and his followers. It is therefore alleged that the Prophet prohibited his followers to wage war against Ethiopia – an injunction which was not respected at all as the devastating interference of the Othman empire in the 16th century were to show.

Semere relies far too much on Ehrlich Haggai´s highly politicized research on the relations between Ethiopia and the Arab world. Citing Islamic traditions (Haddith) with questionable reliability, Ehrlich Haggai invested a great deal of energy to argue on the inevitable conflict between Christian Ethiopia and the Muslims in the Arabian world.

The relations between the Arab/Muslim Empire and Aksum is discussed in great detail where Semere quite easily attributes the decline of Aksum to the rise of Islam along the Red Sea coastline. According to me the story of the decline of Aksum is much more complex and had a great deal with environmental destruction rather than the sealing off the coastline by enemy forces. Semere devotes nearly 20 pages in a reconstruction of Muslim/Christian relations from the end of the 10th century until the rise of Ahmad ibn El Ghazi (commonly known as Ahmed Gragn) between 1527 and 1543. Historical facts are so randomly mixed with hagiographies and prophecies that it is difficult to untangle the knots. Moreover, the role of economic competition between the Christian state and the emergent region of Ifat and Adal is glossed over. The Red Sea as the battle ground between Portugal, the new naval power and the ambition of the Othman empire to stay put in the Red Sea region is not sufficiently scrutinized.

Semere describes the destruction of churches and church properties such as manuscripts using Spencer Trimingham as a source but he draws conclusions about the impact of the war of Ahmad Gragn that are far more politicized than Spencer Trimingham could desire. Semere cites a long quotation (p.250) from Ehrlich Haggai who wrote: The Gragn trauma was the fear of a potential connection between the revitalized Islamic Middle East and local Islamic communities in the Horn, which could result in the politicization and unity of Islam at the expense of Christian hegemony”. The policies of the Ethiopian governments since 1974 do not in any war reflect the fear that Ehrlich Haggai is so eager to promote. For Haggai it makes sense to project into Ethiopian history the realties of the Middle East in general and the Arab/Jewish conflict in particular. For Ehrlich Haggai, Ethiopia is Christian and thus potentially in conflict with the Arab/Muslim world both inside and outside the country.

Not only does Semere discuss the impact of the war of Ahmad Ibn El Ghazi (Ahmed Gragn) from a highly skewed perspective, he does I believe a great injustice to the Oromo (whom he addresses as Galla) and the role they played (pp.252-3) in Ethiopian history of the period. This is by far one of the greatest oversights of the book. Neither Spencer Trimingham nor Donald Levine and nor Tadesse Tamrat would compare the expansion of the Oromo into both sides of the rift Valley in such negative terms. By creating a wedge between the Western highlands (dominantly Christian) and the Eastern Highlands (dominantly Muslim, the Oromo provided an impregnable shield from further Muslim inspired invasion from the East. But I wish to stress that in such a huge book of encyclopedic proportion, such oversights are understandable.

Semere has produced a book that engages the reader at various levels and all the time. It has covered a huge chunk of time combining history proper with the history of the Church and its teachings that few other authors would attempt. Probably one of its strength is to conflate time and space without having to account for what happened or might have happened in between. I read it as a historian and learned a great deal on the close links between religion and state/nation formation. The ambition of Semere is, however, far more encompassing. The “Abyssinian” Orthodox Tewahdo Church might have contributed a great deal to the civilization of Eritrea and Ethiopia but Semere hopes that the apostolic teachings of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Churches would serve as vibrant forces of transforming their communities. The message is already clear and there is no doubt that it would be even more poignant with the forthcoming publication of part two.

Let us all wish Semere that part two would see the light of print as planned.

Source:

  • TomD

    Does the book document persecution of the Church, in particular in the 20th century by the Italians and the Derg?

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