A land of righteousness
Religious belief plays a central part in the day-to-day life of Ethiopians. Whether in the home or in a place or worship, God, Allah, or traditional deities are supplicated, thanked, and held responsible for the ups and downs of life. Religion has played a key role in history, and today is one of the dividing lines of society and politics.
The most remarkable features of Ethiopia's religious life is the centuries-old coexistence of three of the world's main religions. In and around Gonder, Ethiopian Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together in peace until very recently.
Ethiopia's links with the pre-Christian Holy Land are confirmed by the survival of a 'lost tribe'of Jews, who lived in northern Ethiopia around the city of Gonder. Known by Ethiopians as Falasha ('strangers') and to themselves as the Bete Israel ('house of Israel),they lived according to a mixture of Jewish and Ethiopian traditions.
Numbering about 40,000 in the early 1980s, the Falasha were recognized as Jewish by the Israeli rabbinical authorities, although they conducted their ceremonies in Ge'ez, the ancient Ethiopic language. As war and famine ravaged their region, the Falashas looked for a way out. According to the Israeli law of return, they had the right to Israeli citizenship . Israel, in a shadowy deal with dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, arranged the evacuation of the Falasha in two dramatic airlifts: one from Sudan in 1985, and the other, known as 'Operation Solomon', in the last days of the Ethiopian civil war in May 1991. But the Falashas' deliverance has been mixed.
Arriving in Israel at the same time as hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants, most of the Ethiopian Jews have failed to find work or permanent housing. Their clerical autonomy was threatened when Israeli authorities refused to recognize their spiritual leaders, or Kesim. A unique part of Ethiopia's cultural heritage has been lost, and the Falashas' dreams of the promised land have been disappointed.
The Orthodox Church
The Christian heritage of Ethiopia predates that of Europe. When Europeans were still pagan, the Christian faith was taking root in Ethiopia. Ethiopian Orthodoxy was founded in 341 AD, after two Christian Syrian boys, shipwrecked off the Red Sea coast, were brought to the court of the Emperor of Axum.
Eventually they succeeded in converting his successor, Emperor Ezana, to Christianity. From there the religion spread far and wide, encouraged by early missionaries from Syria.
Orthodox Christianity is divided into the Russian,, Greek, Syrian, and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. They differ from the rest of Christianity in their use of the old Julian religious calendar, the composition of their scriptures (there are 81 books in the Orthodox Bible, against 57 in the King James version), and their rituals.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has incorporated elements of Judaism and even, possibly, ancient Egyptian religious ceremonies into its Christian faith. Its practices are arcane, complex, and almost unfathomable to the uninitiated. It is a severe and ascetic faith. Judaic laws on diet and circumcision are followed strictly. A priest in Lalibela may spend about 12 hours a day at the church, with Sunday ceremonies starting at midnight. The devout pray seven times a day, and fast on 180 days in the year. Hermits live in the woods and caves around the monasteries. During times of persecution, churches were built in the most inaccessible places, on cliff-tops, islands, and mountains. But at the height of its power, the church amassed huge wealth: it owned fifteen per cent of the land, and collected rent and tax from its tenants. Even today, the Church wields a major influence on national politics and local lives.
It is estimated that there are 20 million Christians in Ethiopia. The Church itself claims 38 million. Today the clergy number about 200,000, scattered in 15,000 churches. A Sunday communion ceremony (Qidasse) needs two priests and three deacons to officiate. Much of the church liturgy is conducted in Ge'ez, the parent language of the Ethiopian highlands-the Latin of Ethiopia. Even when the sermon and other parts of the ceremony are conducted in Amharic, the nation's modern lingua franca, much of the ritual is incomprehensible to the Ethiopian listener.
The Church today is still strong, despite the confiscation of its property, the politician of its leadership, and the uncomfortable encounter with Marxist atheism during the Mengistu regime. Even those who do not attend church observe some of the customs of the faith, bowing three times towards a church, even when passing in a taxi in Addis Ababa, and stopping priests in the street to kiss their hands.
Islam in Ethiopia
Ethiopia's first refugees were Muslims. While the prophet Mohammed was still alive, some of his disciples took refuge in Ethiopia from persecution in Arabia. As a result, the Prophet dubbed Ethiopia's land of righteousness where Allah will give you relief from poor suffering. The faith has grown in Ethiopia ever since, in periods of violent conflict with Christians, interspersed with centuries of peaceful cohabitation.
Muslims probably number as many as Christians in today's Ethiopia; the precise count is a highly contentious issue. Given Ethiopia's historical reputation as a Christian redoubt, it has not been easy for Muslims to assert themselves in the modern state. None the less, Ethiopia has a rich Islamic history. Harar is to Ethiopian Islam as Axum is to the Orthodox Church. The oldest mosque in the Horn of Africa stands at the center of the walled city of Harar, founded in 1520. The Juma'a mosque, founded by Sheik Abadir, proved to be a magnet for the surrounding villages, and five of the main settlements moved into the town. The sheik is buried at a shrine beneath the huge branches of an old fig tree in a corner of the old city.
Harar grew into a powerful trading center, exporting slaves, ivory, coffee, tobacco, cloth, livestock, honey, spices, and incense. By now the city has accumulated a total of 87 mosques and 103 shrines and is one of the most important Islamic centers in the world. A dusty museums holds manuscript copies of the Koran, 800 years old, bound in leather and exquisitely inscribed on goatskin.
Ethiopia's Muslims are Sunni, the largest branch of Islam. As with the Orthodox Christians, traditional beliefs in natural spirits have been amalgamated into the monotheistic religion of Islam. The relationship between the two is best described by an Oromo proverb: 'His mouth talks about Sheik Hussein [ a place of pilgrimage], but his hands are stretched up to the tree.'
The old religion
Older than al the monotheistic religions with their written scriptures are animist beliefs of Ethiopia's 80 ethnic minority groups. At least a quarter of these groups are less than 20,000 strong. They are generally on the edges of the country, mainly in the lowlands, speaking an array of unique languages, and leading their lives according to the seasons.
The Hammer people, probably about 15,000 in number, live in the far south-west of Ethiopia. They are a traditional pastoralist society, rearing animals for blood milk, and sometimes meat, and growing sorghum in a few rain-fed areas. The idea of nation states and lines on the map mean little to them. What is important is their Hamer territory, enclosed by a range of mountains to the east, beyond which live the Tsemhai people, and the Omo river, controlled by the Geleb group to the west.
Much photographed for coffee-table books, but rarely interviewed, traditional peoples know their land better than any government official or outsider. Eking a living from the arid expanses of Ethiopia's periphery is a skill, but young civil servants in the government ministries still talk of the 'backwardness' of the 'nomads', and argue that settlement is the way forward for them.
The traditional peoples of Ethiopia are woven together by systems of age groups, marital alliances, clan allegiance, and water rights. But their way of life is under pressure: the easy way of life is under pressure: the easy availability of guns, the shortage of land and water, and there threat of AIDS have all made life on the periphery event more precarious. All of Ethiopia's minority peoples are facing change. Pressure on land and livestock has meant that many, like the Hammer, are having to cultivate and become semi-sedentary. Most of their languages have ever been written down.
Surha Ado, an elder of the Arbore people, says that life has become more difficult. 'All we know is how to follow the seasons,' he says. 'If there was a drought, we used to hunt.' But the seasons are not reliable any more, and the wild-life is fast disappearing. His people now depend on rations from the government Relief and Rehabilitation Commission. 'It was never like this before,' he says, echoing a theme voiced by older people all over Ethiopia. 'You don't even get milk from goats now.'
Turga Galsha, a graying elder of the Hamer, welcomed the author of this book and Jenny Matthews, the photographer, to his hut in Deleme village. Coffee was offered, but first a prayer: for more rain for the well-being of the guests. All blew a hissing noise, symbolizing the breath of life, to close the prayer.
Regular seasons are God's responsibility, and the Hamer, scraping by in another year of drought, are fed up with their God. 'God has hone to sleep. I've given up begging him,' says Turga Galsha later. But he stresses that their values remain the same: 'There is no rich person and no poor person among us. Even though God is sleeping, we share everything. This is how we are. Makers of beehives, herders of cattle, and beginners at ploughing.'
Ethiopia is the spiritual home- if not the geographical base - of Rastafarianism, a religious and political movement which began in Jamaica in the 1920s, and has spread throughout the Caribbean, North America, and Western Europe. Hundreds of thousands of people of Afro-Caribbean origin regard Ras Tafari-or the emperor Haile Selassie, as he later style himself-as the Messiah and champion of the black race, because he was the king of the only African country never colonized. Rastafarians, who identify with the Israelites of the Old Testament, await their own 'exodus': redemption for all people of African descent by repatriation back to Africa. Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah, they believe, is not dead, and one day will lead them home. The most obvious features of Rastafarian culture are their distinctive reggae music and their' dreadlocks': long braids of hair, often worn under caps in the Ethiopian national colors: red, yellow, and green. but many of them also follow strict dietary laws, and have developed a form of religious mysticism which blends together African and Old Testament practices.