Keepers of the Lost Ark

There are many worthy pilgrimage sites all over the world, but none can boast of anything approaching the Church of Ethiopia’s singular claim to fame: the Ark of the Covenant. Ethiopian Christians maintain that the Ark, the portable shrine holding the stone tablets of the original Ten Commandments that were written atop Mount Sinai by the Finger of God, and bearing (according to numerous Old Testament accounts) the Presence and Power of God, was brought to Ethiopia in 950 B.C. Menelik, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, is said to have taken it there, and it is now housed in a modest chapel next door to the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum, a city in northern Ethiopia.

However, before you book a flight to Addis Ababa and flag down the next land rover for a lift to Axum, be aware that while Ethiopians insist that the Ark is there, no one is actually allowed to see it. No one, that is, except the High Priest of Axum, an aged monk who is charged with protecting the Ark and is expected to spend his days doing nothing else. Indeed, he can’t do anything else, for he is confined to the chapel that houses the Ark, and a small yard outside.

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On his deathbed he is charged with designating his own successor, who may be forgiven for taking the duty as a dubious blessing: the Ethiopians remember and take very seriously all the Old Testament prohibitions on touching the Ark, and the accounts of its fearsome holy power. One British explorer who tried to get permission to see the Ark recounted what the monks told him, sounding as if he were reading from the script of the next Indiana Jones movie:

If I approached the Ark I would be punished. The theory is that it would become invisible and unleash upon me its terrible power. I would be killed outright, probably incinerated.

Yet the Ark was not always kept so hidden. In the late 1100s, a Coptic priest known as Abu Salih the Armenian wrote a description of the churches and monasteries of Egypt and the surrounding areas. In it, he noted almost casually that “the Abyssinians possess also the Ark of the Covenant.” He explained that four times a year, Ethiopian priests would celebrate the Divine Liturgy using the Ark for an altar: on Christmas, Theophany (the Great Feast of the Baptism of the Lord), Easter, and the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. In more recent times, the Ark would be taken out in processions, but endless wars and oppressive anti-Christian regimes led to the discontinuing of such processions.

Many people doubt that the Ark is really in the Church of St. Mary of Zion or anywhere else in Ethiopia, and the head of the Ethiopian Church did not help matters on June 25, 2009, when His Holiness Abuna Paulos, Patriarch and Catholicos of Ethiopia, Ichege of the See of St. Tekle Haymanot, Archbishop of Axum and one of the seven serving Presidents of the World Council of Churches, announced that he would place the Ark on display the following day. When the next day dawned, however, he changed his mind.

Whether or not it really possesses the Ark, the Church in Ethiopia has an illustrious history. It traces its origins to an incident recounted in the Acts of the Apostles (8:26-39), when Philip the deacon encounters on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza “an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.” With a fine disregard for RCIA requirements, the Ethiopian asks to be baptized right then and there, after hearing Philip explain the words of the prophet Isaiah. Philip complies.

The Ethiopian “went on his way rejoicing,” presumably back to the court of the Ethiopian Queen Gersamot Hendeke (or Candace) VII, who reigned from 42 to 52 A.D. Early in the fourth century, St. Frumentius, a Christian from Tyre who grew up as slave of the Emperor of Axum, converted his former master’s son, the new Emperor, Ezana. The Christian community grew so rapidly that Ezana sent Frumentius to Alexandria to ask Pope St. Athanasius, the hero of the Council of Nicaea that had elaborated the doctrines of the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ, to appoint a hierarch for the Church in Ethiopia. Athanasius complied by sending Frumentius himself back to Ethiopia as the Abuna (Father), the Archbishop of the Ethiopian Church. Frumentius became known as Abba Selama, Kesaté Birhan — Father of Peace, Revealer of Light.

Even though Alexandria willingly supplied the Ethiopians with a hierarch, the Alexandrian patriarchate stipulated that the Abuna of the Ethiopians must be an Egyptian, and actually prohibited Ethiopians from holding hierarchical positions in their own Church. This curious rule, unparalleled anywhere else in the Christian world, remained in effect for nearly 1,600 years, until 1959, when the Coptic Orthodox Church granted autonomy to the Ethiopian Church.

Because of its close ties to Alexandria, it is not surprising that the Church of Ethiopia refused to accept the Council of Chalcedon, and went into schism with the rest of the Alexandrian patriarchate. The Ethiopian Church began to refer to itself as the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which is its official name to this day. Tewahedo is a Ge’ez word meaning “being made one” or “unified.” The Ethiopians took this name in order to emphasize their belief in the oneness of Christ, for which they had gone into schism: while the Council of Chalcedon declared that Christ had two natures, divine and human, the Ethiopian Church and the entire Patriarchate of Alexandria insisted that He had only one nature, hence the name “Monophysites”: one (mono) nature (physis). Ge’ez is the ancient language of the region, once the official language of the Axumite Empire — the Ethiopian answer to liturgical Latin.

The Monophysite schism is one of the most tragic in Church history, for it carried off what was at that time essentially half of Christendom over what was a quarrel more over words than meaning. Like the Church of Alexandria, the Ethiopian Church has always rejected the “Monophysite” label. An official history of the Church of Ethiopia declares:

The wrongly called Monophysites reject the allegation that they teach one Nature and one Person in Christ….The teaching of the Ethiopian Church is the faith of the Fathers expounded by the great theologians of the Alexandrine tradition, especially by St. Cyril and his illustrious theological followers. Accordingly the Ethiopian Church maintains that Christ is perfect God and perfect man, at once consubstantial with the Father and with us; the divinity and the humanity continuing in Him without mixture or separation, confusion or change. He is one and the same person both in his eternal pre-existence and also in the economy, in which he performs the redeeming work of God on behalf of man, from the indivisible state of union of Godhead and manhood.

This formula is entirely consistent with the Council of Chalcedon, yet because the Chalcedonians understood the non-Chalcedonians’ statements in a heretical sense (and the latter returned the favor), a schism began that has never yet been healed. The Church of Ethiopia was effectively cut off from contact with all Christian bodies outside of the Patriarchate of Alexandria, and before too long the coming of Islam to Ethiopia further isolated the Ethiopian Church.

Ethiopia is famous in the early history of Islam because, according to Islamic tradition, when the Muslims were facing persecution from the Quraysh, the pagan Arabs of Mecca, the Islamic prophet Muhammad sent a group of Muslims to seek refuge in Ethiopia. Ashama ibn Abjar, the Emperor of Axum, welcomed them and was impressed by their confession of Jesus as the word of God and a prophet of God, born of a virgin. If they told Ashama that they also denied Christ’s divinity and salvific death and resurrection, it evidently didn’t faze him, for eventually, according to the Muslim tradition, Ashama converted to Islam himself. The Ge’ez word tewahedo, referring to Christ’s unity, became in Arabic tauhid, the fundamental Islamic principle of the unity of God — yet another indication of how strongly various elements of Eastern Christianity influenced the development of Islam.

Today Ethiopia is about one-third Muslim, with forty-six percent of the population belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, nineteen percent to Protestant sects, and less than one percent to the Ethiopian Catholic Church, which was formally established in 1930. Latin-Rite churches, however, have a longer history in Ethiopia: Portuguese traders established them in Ethiopia in the seventeenth century, and even converted an Ethiopian emperor, Susenyos, to Catholicism in 1624. Susenyos proclaimed Roman Catholicism the official religion of Ethiopia — a moved that proved to be so wildly unpopular that Susenyos had to abdicate under pressure in 1632 in favor of his son, Fasilides. Fasilides defused the crisis by restoring the official status of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (which it held until the Communist takeover of the 1970s), expelling the Jesuits from the country, and ordering incinerated all the “books of the Franks.”

Although some European missionaries in the nineteenth century used the Ethiopian liturgies while they were in the country, there was no Eastern Church in communion with Rome in Ethiopia until the Ethiopian Catholic Church was founded. Today, while there are many countries in which Eastern Catholics are under the jurisdiction of the local Roman Catholic bishop, Ethiopia the former Ethiopian province of Eritrea (where most Christians are Ethiopian Orthodox) is the only country in the world in which all the Catholics who live there, including Latin-Rite Catholics, are in the care of the local Eastern Catholic hierarchy.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Ethiopian Catholic Church share a rich liturgical tradition. The Ethiopian Liturgy is derived from the Church of Alexandria’s Divine Liturgy of St. Mark, considerably elaborated: it boasts no fewer than fourteen Anaphoras, or Eucharistic Prayers, although only one is in general use and the others reserved for particular feast days. Three deacons are required for the celebration of the Liturgy, which creates a high demand for deacons that may be the chief reason why the Tewahedo Church (although not the Ethiopian Catholic Church) ordains young boys as deacons.

Today this Church, and the people who have so lovingly protected and preserved it for so many centuries, is – like all the strains of Eastern Christianity – increasingly endangered. Muslims make up only one-third of the Ethiopian population, but they are in in recent years in Ethiopia (as in many other parts of the world) growing markedly more assertive and aggressive. In March 2011, a Muslim mob in Ethiopia burned down 69 churches and displaced thousands of people in riots triggered by rumors that a Christian had desecrated a copy of the Qur’an. Then last April, four Muslims went to Kale Hiwot church, a Protestant church in Worabe (a predominantly Muslim area of Ethiopia) and told the pastor, Abraham Abera, that one of his closest friends was seriously ill and that he should visit him immediately. Once they had convinced Abera to go with them, they turned on him and beat him to death. When his pregnant wife ran up to try to save him, they began beating her as well. One of the attackers made their motive clear, saying: “You (Christians) are growing in number in our area. You are spreading your message (the gospel). We will destroy you.” And in November, a mob of 500 Muslims, including policemen, shouted “Allahu akbar” (Allah is greatest) as they burnt down a church that they claimed had been built without the proper permits, although it had been standing on that spot for over sixty years.

These incidents are likely to become more frequent as the “Arab Spring” brings still more violence and fanaticism to the Muslim nations surrounding Ethiopia. As we pray for the Church in Ethiopia, we should also hope that they really do have the Ark, and it really does work they way they say it does. In that case, no one will be able entirely to overcome the venerable and heroic Church of Ethiopia.


  • Robert Spencer

    Robert Spencer is the author of several critically acclaimed books about Islam, including the New York Times bestsellers The Truth about Muhammad and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). He is a columnist for FrontPage Magazine and the director of Jihad Watch.

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