Home > Uncategorized > Ethiopia’s Distinctive Religious Hertiage

Ethiopia’s Distinctive Religious Hertiage

On September 11, 2007, Ethiopia will be welcoming the coming of the third millennium. It is unfortunate but it came at a time when the country has nothing of its former strength and glory and when ethnic identities, rather than unison, are stressed.

Donald Levine, one of the country’s long time friend and advocate of its unity, remains adamant and makes a case for his bold vision of ‘Greater Ethiopia’ where he sees collective strength and power, rather than threat, in its various ethnic groups.

In a short a short millennial piece professor Donald Levine composed upon the request of the Ethiopian community of San Jose, he once again set to explore “something distinctive about Ethiopia’s heritage”. And it is an enlightening and informative read. 

When invited by the Ethiopian community of San Jose, California, to compose a short millennial piece celebrating something distinctive about Ethiopia’s heritage, I decided for a variation on the theme of many of my previous writings, where I emphasize the multiethnic character of historic Ethiopia.  This concerns the extent to which the various peoples of the Horn have come from common ancestors and intermingled in so many ways– through intermarriage, commerce, shared festivals, cultural borrowings, and common political aspirations and activities, most notably in the defense of Ethiopia against external invasions from the Turks, from the Sudanese, and on those two terrible occasions, from imperialist Italy.

In this piece I shall celebrate an aspect of Ethiopia’s heritage that has rarely been accorded the attention it deserves.  This concerns the character of her religious traditions.   At least four features of religion in Ethiopia deserve special attention.

For one thing, Ethiopia became receptive to each of the three great Semitic world religions very early, earlier than nearly any other part of the world.  Hebraic influence arrived at an extremely early period.  This is attested by Hebraic words that were used in the translation of the New Testament into Ge’ez.  Most remarkably, the chief indigenous surviving Judaic community – that of the Beta Israel – knew only of Jewish holidays prior to exile of the Jews to Babylon in the 6th century B.C.E.  The adoption of Christianity as official religion in Aksum took place in the 4th century C.E., making Ethiopia, like Syria, Armenia, and Egypt, home to one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world.  And she gave refuge to followers of the Prophet Mohammed before Islam was officially established, protecting them when the nascent faith was endangered, a gesture that inspired Mohammed to declare Ethiopia perennially exempt from any sort of jihadic intervention.

Because these religions arrived so early, they took shape in Ethiopian soil in a way that enabled them to grow side by side from the outset.  They intertwined in many ways.  None of them became used as the basis for any sort of rabid exclusionary project.  Judaism in Ethiopia was always part of the Ethiopian national culture, not–until the past century–a force that led her followers to reject Ethiopia as their national homeland.  Neither Christianity nor Islam was used historically as a basis for persecuting other populations or massacring dissidents, as happened so often with both of those religions in other countries.  (Ahmad Gragn’s jihad was instigated from outside Ethiopia by the Ottoman Turks.  Emperor Yohannes’s strict Christianizing policy reflected a national political fear of being invaded by Mahdist Muslims, who did invade and finally killed him.  Popular prejudices against the Beta Israelis, often called buda, did not reflect a studied persecution of them by the Orthodox Church.) Beyond that, Ethiopians of different Semitic religions could and often did intermarry, often took part in one another’s festivals, and shared certain special occasions together–most notably, the annual pilgrimage to the site of the Archangel Gabrael at Mount Kulubi.

Third, the relation to “pagan” Ethiopian religions was tolerant to a degree not shown much elsewhere–a subject that deserves a lot more study.  Family resemblances between the properties of indigenous deity symbols, such as the Oromo Waqa, with the Semitic deities may have had some subliminal effect, even though resemblance of that name and other cognate names among peoples in the South–Waq (Afar, Somali, Burji, Konso, Dasensech, Gurage);  Wak (Saho); Wa’a (Hadiyya); Waga (Gamu ); Waqaya (Majangir);  Muqo (Tsamako); and Magano (Sidamo)–with Amharic wuqabi (guardian angel) may reflect common sound and not linguistic kinship.  To be sure, the Christian and Muslim missionaries pressured followers of indigenous faiths to embrace one of those Semitic religions.  But there are many instances where indigenous religionists held joint celebrations with Christians and/or Muslims.

Finally, I would mention the depth of religious sentiment that marks so many Ethiopians.  This trait came to the fore during the Derg period, when systematic efforts to eradicate religious traditions were met by increased observance, including a remarkable increase in the practice of fasting.

These elementary facts should be known by every single Ethiopian at home and abroad.  One good way to celebrate Ethiopia’s special millennium would be to promote awareness of these special features of her history and culture..

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Hadi
    September 9, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    A great Millennium and a happy New Year 2000 to all Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia.Ethiopia shall rise again!

  2. Yaya
    September 10, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    Happy Ethiopian New Year
    (Millenium 2000)

  3. Yigebe
    September 11, 2007 at 6:53 am

    Dear friends and my compatriots,
    I wish you all the happeaiest Enqutatash and Millennium!
    We are the one who God allows to be witnesses of the 2000 years, Please ENJOY your time.

    With all my love

    Yigebe (emebet)

  4. Ariane
    September 11, 2007 at 3:00 pm

    Bonjour Aref,

    Une carte postale virtuelle est à votre disposition dans mon bureau de
    poste virtuel.

    Votre carte est accompagnée d’une petite musique.

    Attention ! Vous avez 20 jours pour récupérer votre carte.

    À très bientôt !

    Ariane et Fred

  5. Rediet
    September 11, 2007 at 3:03 pm

    Dear All,

    I wish you all a happy and joyful year and I hope the
    new millinium will be a period of joy,happyness and
    peace!

    Happy New Year,
    Rediet

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