Friday, February 14, 2014

Ethiopian Christians in the Old City of Jerusalem

When you speak of Ethiopians in Israel, you immediately consider the large population of Beta Israel Ethiopian Jews who were airlifted to Israel starting in the 1980s. But there is another, much smaller group of Ethiopians in Israel, one with ancient roots and unique traditions. Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is, in fact, closer to Judaism in its customs and practices than any other Christian group.

My wife and I visited the Ethiopian Christian churches as part of our touring course on "Minorities in the Old City of Jerusalem." The course was organized by Zman Eshkol, the leading operator of leisure studies in Israel.

I took off my hat, we took off our shoes, and then walked into the Ethiopian Monastery Church, formerly a German nuns hostel. We would soon learn why we would were required to take off our shoes.

Inside we met Jimmy, an Ethiopian priest who read to us from the Bible in Ge'ez, the Ethiopian holy language. The Ge'ez text is printed left to right and certain words appear in red. Any time God's name, or the names of saints, is written in the Bible, the text is in red. Jimmy read for us a passage from the New Testament.
"Then the angel of the Lord said to Philip: Start out and go south to the road that leads down from Jerusalem to Gaza. So he set out and was on his way when he caught sight of an Ethiopian. This man was a eunuch, a high official of the Kandake Queen of Ethiopia in charge of all her treasure." (Acts, 8:26-27)
Jimmy, the Ethiopian priest, reads to us from the Bible

The Ethiopian Christians trace their origins even further back, to the legendary meeting between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who ruled the lands of south Yemen and Ethiopia. She is known to the Ethiopians as Makeda.

The ancient Ethiopian book Kebra Negast ('the Glory of Kings') tells of Queen of Sheba's trip to Jerusalem, where she stayed in King Solomon's palace for one year but refused to sleep with him. Solomon courted her, but she continued to refuse his advances. On the last night of her stay, there was a feast. Solomon agreed not to touch her, as long as she didn't leave the next day with anything. In the middle of the night, she woke up with a thirst and took a drink. Solomon caught her in the act, taking something.

"But it is just water!" she protested.

Water was a very important commodity for Solomon, as he ruled a land where it was not always present. The land of Sheba had plentiful rainfall. Solomon declared to the Queen, "Now, I am allowed!"

Nine months later, a son was born to the Queen of Sheba by the name of Menelik, who ruled Ethiopia around 950 BCE.  According to the legend, Menelik came to Jerusalem at the age of twenty to meet King Solomon, his father. Solomon recognized him and said, "Because you are my son, I give you the Ark of the Covenant and you can take it to Ethiopia," explaining the act by saying that he had built a Temple in Jerusalem, a holy residence for the spirit of God, and therefore there was no longer a need for this physical item.

The Ethiopian Bible, the names of God and saints are written in red

Ethiopians say Menelik received the Ark of the Covenant, others say he stole it. But in any case, there is no further mention of the Ark of the Covenant in the scriptures. According to Ethiopian tradition, the Ark is today located in Aksum in northern Ethiopia. For more information see this Smithsonian article: "Keepers of the Lost Ark".

Under Menelik's rule and for 1,400 years, Ethiopians practiced pseudo-Judaism until the country adopted Christianity as its state religion in 330 CE. Ethiopia, therefore, became the third country in the world to accept Christianity, following the Byzantines and Armenia.

Today there are 40 million Ethiopian Christians. There are 5,000 Ethiopian Christians in Israel, most of them in Jerusalem and Nazareth. In Jerusalem, they live in a small section of the Old City's Christian Quarter and on Ethiopia Street.

The ceiling inside the Ethiopian Monastery church

 Similarities to Judaism

Ethiopian Christianity is the version of Christianity closest to Judaism. Many of its customs are very similar:

* Circumcision on the 8th day after birth (although baptism is an important practice)

* Shabbat is holy (in addition to Sunday)

* Pork is forbidden

* The new year is celebrated in September

* Prayers are said while standing (no kneeling)

View of the Old City, looking toward the Temple Mount, from the roof of the Ethiopian church

Ethiopian Christians believe they are from Solomon's seed, and their language is Semitic. They consider their country the Black Zion. Every Ethiopian church has a makdas (altar), which is a replica of the Ark of the Covenant.

And that is why shoes are not allowed in an Ethiopian church, because of the proximity to the Ark of the Covenant. There is only one other Christian church with this custom, Santa Katarina at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where the children of Israel received the Ten Commandments.

Related articles:

Coptic Christians in the Old City of Jerusalem

Catholics in the Old City of Jerusalem

The Gates of Jerusalem

Stairway in the Old City of Jerusalem


  1. Beautiful description and I loved learning the history of this very early Church.

  2. Thank you for sharing about the Ethiopian church. This was a wonderful article! I am Byzantine Catholic, and some of the iconography is very similar to the Byz or Orthodox churches.

  3. Awesome article. Thank you so much for sharing!

  4. Very nice article Ellis. I read about Kebra Negast in one of the novels by Erik Von Deniken. The whole story is nothing less than a fantastic mystery :)

  5. Outstanding article. The photos were fabulous.

  6. Fascinating especially when tied with the Smithsonian article. Thank you Ellis.

  7. Thanks Ellis for sharing more on this unique group and their close ties to Judaism.

  8. Your article and the one in Smithsonian were interesting to me, a Seventh-day Adventist Christian who also keeps the Sabbath and doesn't eat pork. I've heard many missionary stories about Adventist pioneers from the last century who stumbled on whole villages who were keeping the Sabbath, and this information helps put it in historical context for me. Wouldn't it be fabulous if they discovered this Ark with the Commandments in them? The one Commandment that God said to remember might get some needed attention again!

  9. I once walked to the top of Mount Sinai from St Catherine's. It's a seven hour trek (at night) followed by a climb of seven hundred steps to reach the little church at the top. But what a view! One other thing you need to do when you tour inside St Catherine's is to cover your legs.

  10. Thank you for this article, most especially for the example of iconography, very different from any other iconography I've seen--and so lovely!