The Many Faces of Ethiopia

by Rev. Terrence J. Mulkerin

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Ethiopia is a name that people remember but a face that they find difficult to place. Looking at a map of that eastern area of the continent called the Horn of Africa, we might imagine Ethiopia as the head and profile of an ancient civilization.

To the north, it faces Mecca, Jerusalem and Egypt. The Crusaders, thinking Ethiopia to be a Christian outpost in the midst of a sea of unbelief, came there seeking the legendary Prester John who they hoped would lead them into battle in the Holy Land. The Egyptians believed that they had received some of their gods from Ethiopia. They called it the “Land of Punt,” the Land of God. In the course of its history, Africans, Jews, Christians, and Moslems all brought their religions to God’s country.

Turning to the east, Ethiopia looks toward Somalia and Djibouti on the African continent and Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula. All of this territory was a single nation at the time of the Hebrew King Solomon and the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba. The Bible constantly refers to the power, the wealth and the beauty of the Ethiopian people.

To the south, Ethiopia regards the Black African nations of Kenya and Uganda with which it shares a common racial origin. When the Greeks came into contact with the Ethiopians, they coined a name for them. They believed the Ethiopians were darker than Europeans because they lived closer to the sun. The Greeks used two words to describe them: “ethios,” which means “burnt,” and “ops,” which means “face.”

Westward, Ethiopia contemplates the Sudan and its capital, Khartoum, located on the Nile. The great river begins its flow to the Mediterranean through the banks of the Blue Nile which rises in western Ethiopia.

As we scrutinize the face more closely, we find that Ethiopia is scarred by the Great Rift Valley, a slash on the surface of the earth extending from the Dead Sea to South Africa. On either side of this cleavage, the earth’s skin builds up to Ethiopia’s eastern and western highlands. Like tears brought on by the pain of this wound, lakes and streams form on the weather-beaten face of the country.

The nearer we get to Ethiopia, the more closely we see the lines of age that give character to this nation of 27,000,000 people. Archeologists discovered the remains of a man-like creature who lived a million and a half years ago in the Valley of Omo. Anthropologists find evidence that Ethiopian civilization is older than even Egyptian civilization. Jews, Christians, and Moslems discover part of their past in Ethiopia. Centuries of isolation from outsiders have preserved primitive elements of each of these religions there.

Ethiopia is the home of the Falashas, the “Black Jews.”As their name implies, they are “wanderers” who immigrated to Ethiopia where they were converted by Yemenite Jews. Four centuries ago, they numbered half a million people; today they are only 28,000 living as farmers in scattered villages. They have their own prayer customs which distinguish them from other Jews. They do not celebrate the Feasts of Hanukkah or Purim, for example, and their Bible is written in Ge’ez, not in Hebrew. Until they were discovered in 1870 by Joseph Halevy, they believed that they were the only Jews left in the world.

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Tags: Ethiopia Cultural Identity Ethiopian Orthodox Church Monasticism