30 Must Know Facts About The Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox church

The Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church: A Rich and Interesting History

It is hard to talk about Ethiopia without mentioning the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church. One is intrinsically tied to the other.

Ever since its formation in the 4th century, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has had a major defining role for the people of this ancient nation.

Even today, one will bear witness to children as young as 7 years old, walking solemnly into a church yard to bow, kiss the ground, pay homage and humbly exit.

Probably no where in today's modern age is religion taken so seriously as it is in Ethiopia with her Tewahedo Orthodox Church.

The word Tewahedo means "being made one" a principle that came from the Orthodox belief that illustrates Jesus' one unified nature, symbolizing his divine and human aspects.

The following are 30 facts we believe will help you get a complete understanding of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church:


1. The Religion of Ethiopians Before Christianity

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox sabaen script

Paganism and Judaism were religions that Ethiopian's were following before the introduction of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church.

It is believed that the worship of the serpent (snake-like) was widespread and Ethiopians used to offer sacrifices to the creatures alter.

This was proved by archeologists who discovered engravings (drawings) of the serpent on one of the famous Axum Stelae, which can still be seen today.

A description written in the "Avesta", an ancient and sacred book of Persia which is identical to the worship of the serpent in Ethiopia, lends credence to the belief that the religion was introduced to Ethiopia from Persia.

Ethiopians/Axumites would eventually convert from this ancient religon to Christianity.

2. The Gods of Ancient Ethiopia

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox sabaen statues

In the 1st millennium B.C. Sabaean immigrants came across the Red Sea and settled in Ethiopia. They were polytheists and paid homage to and worshipped different gods of the sea, heaven, and earth.

Some of the gods that were adopted and widely worshiped by the local Ethiopians were:

Elmouqah or Almouqah: the main god of the south Arabian pantheon.

Astarte or Astar: related to the Greek/Roman Aphrodite/Venus.

Sin: the Moon god.

Sham: the Sun god.

With the introduction of the Greek culture in Ethiopia, the Sabaean pantheon would be replaced by the Greek pantheon.

Famous Greek inscriptions left at Adulis by an unknown Ethiopian Emperor, speaks of Zeus, Poseidon, Aries, Hermes and Hercules.

It is revealed through many epigraphic writings, that the god Aries was considered the personal god of the Ethiopian Emperors during pre-Christian Ethiopia.

3. Ethiopianized Ancient Gods

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox ancient sabaen statues

By the 3rd century, Ethiopia would begin to develop its own Ethiopianized culture and identity.

With this the names of the gods would change to a more Ethiopic version.

This was observed on the pre-Christian Ge'ez writings made by Emperor Ezana.

Almouqah would become Seamy, Poseidon would become Baher, and Aries would in turn become Mahrem.

4. Ancient Ethiopian Temples, Alters, and Statues Still Standing Today

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox ancient almaqah god

A little before the 5th century, temples, alters and statues were dedicated to the gods.

In the ancient city of Yeha, there still stands today a well-preserved temple which is directly dedicated to the Sabaean god Almouqah.

The temple is rectangular with a double wall and a single door. Another similar temple which is in ruins can be found in Hawlti-Melazo, which is close to the city of Axum.

A temple built to honor the god Aries exists in the city of Axum, itself.

Alters were also common in the ancient past and they exist in various places throughout. Kaskasse, a town close to Methara, has an alter dedicated to the Sabaean god Sin.

It has engravings with dedicatory writings, as well as, the crescent and disc symbol.

Alters dedicated to the god Almouqah also exist. Emperor Ezana himself built statues of gold, silver and bronze to the god Aries after he defeated the Beja people on the northern part of his territory.

5. How Judaism First Began in Ancient Ethiopia

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox queen sheba king solomon

According to the Kebre Negast or Glory of the Kings, the introduction of Judaism into Ethiopia occurred through the visit of Queen Sheba to King Solomon in Jerusalem.

With the return of Queen Sheba to Ethiopia, she would bear a son by King Solomon, named Menelik.

Upon his transition to manhood, he would travel to Jerusalem to visit his father.

Through methods described as subterfuge or even theft, Menelik would return to Ethiopia with many Israelites (sons of Levites) bringing with him the Ark of the Covenant.

It is further believed by some that the Falasha people of northern Ethiopia, who follow a pre-Talmudic type of Judaism, are descendents of the Israelites.


6. Romans First Brought Christianity to Ethiopia

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox ancient egypt church

Christianity was not new to Ethiopia, before the time of Frumentius.

Traders coming from the Roman Empire had settled in the Axumite region and had prayer houses in cities such as Adulis and Axum.

In the bible, the Acts of the Apostles, a eunuch in charge of the Ethiopian Queen Candace's treasures travelled to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel.

While there he met Deacon Philip and was baptized by him. Ethiopian folklore claims that he would return to Ethiopia and convert his people.

By the fourth century or c. 330 A.D., Emperor Ezana would convert to Christianity and in turn make it the official state religion.

7. The Emperor Who First Made Christianity Official in Ethiopia

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox king ezana of axum ethiopia

Unlike in other nations, Christianity as a religion of the state of Ethiopia did not come about as a result of organized conversion activities from foreign sources.

Instead, Christianity was adopted because of the desire and will of the ruler at the time: Emperor Ezana.

In other parts of the world Christianity was confined to the lower levels of society for many centuries and strictly despised and rejected by the upper ruling classes.

In Ethiopia, the reverse is true, Christianity was first adopted by the royal family and through their influence, it slowly penetrated the commoners.

The Roman Empire had Apostles and Church fathers actively engaged in the conversion of their people, while in Ethiopia it was voluntarily adopted.

8. The True Story of How Christianity Began in Ethiopia

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox ancient manuscript

We have the story of Ethiopia's conversion to Christianity through a church historian of the time named, Rufinus (410 A.D.):

A philosopher from Tyre, by the name of Meropius took his two young relatives, Frumentius and Aedesius for a trip to India.

Along the way, they would run out of food and stock, forcing them to land at a port in the African coast.

The locals, who harbored deep hatred for Roman citizens would kill everyone on board, leaving only the two young boys.

They would be taken to the king and who would then take interest in the boys. The younger, Aedesius would become the king's cup-bearer, while the older Frumentius, who showed signs of maturity and wisdom, would be made the king's secretary and treasurer.

Upon the king's death bed, he would allow the boys to return to their own country is they so wished.

But with his early death, the Queen-Mother who became Regent of the country would beg them to stay and help her run the kingdom until her young son (Emperor Ezana) would come of age.

Frumentius and Aedesius would agree and faithfully serve the Queen Mother. In the mean time, Fruementius would take special interest in the Christianity religion and would encourage the Roman merchants in Axum to build prayer houses.

This would lay the foundation for the spread of the religion and in time the young Ethiopian King Ezana would also convert to Christianity.

9. The First Bishop of Ethiopia

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox first bishop st. frumentius

The first Bishop of Ethiopia was St. Frumentius.

As the young King Ezana grew and became capable of running the country, Frumentius and Aedesius would ask him for permission to travel beyond Axum.

Aedesius opted to return to his homeland of Tyre, while Frumentius went to Alexandria in Egypt to beg the patriarch to appoint a bishop for the Christians in Axum.

Upon consulting with his council, the patriarch would appoint Frumentius as bishop.

10. Illuminations, Illuminated, Bright and Light as Themes in Ancient Ethiopia

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox illuminated people

Illumination, illuminated, bright, and light were the common theme of the names chosen by the Ethiopians to name those that brought them Christianity.

St. Frumentius would be named Kassate Berhan or Revealer of Light and Abba Salama or Father of Peace.

Emperor Ezana would be baptized by the name Abreha or The Illuminated.

Saezana would be baptized as Atsbeha or He Who Brought the Light of Dawn.

11. Egyptians Take Over the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox egypt bishops

Upon the death of St. Frumentius, he was succeeded by Bishop Minas, an Egyptian.

This would begin a 1,600 year period in which an odd relationship was created with the Egyptians of Alexandria.

Throughout this long period, Ethiopians were not considered capable or eligible for consecration as bishops, and were required to have Coptic patriarch of Alexandria preside over their faith.

Thus, a bishop of Egyptian origin has always remained at the head of the Ethiopian Church from its establishment up to the 2nd half of the 20th century. This is an unheard of occurrence in the history of the Christian Church.

The autonomy of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church was manifested by the consecration of 5 Ethiopian bishops in 1948.

One of those Bishops, Abuna Basilios, would be made Archbishop of Ethiopia in 1951 and by 1959 he would become the first Patriarch of Ethiopia in by the Patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt.

12. The Famous 9 Saints of Axum - Ancient Ethiopia

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox 9 saints

The famous 9 Saints of Axum were considered to have made more of a contribution to the conversion and schooling of the Axumites as opposed to the Egyptian Bishop Minas.

The Saints arrived from territories such as Syria and Constantinople, which were then parts of the Eastern Roman Empire.

They arrived in Axum in 480 A.D. and were warmly welcomed by the then Emperor Ella Amida, as well as the citizens of the land.

Most notable of these 9 Saints are Garima (Isaac), Afse, Pantalewon, and Za-Mikael Aregawi.

The 9 Saints valiant efforts to destroy paganism in Axum did not end in their persecution or death as had similar efforts in the Roman Empire.

Instead they had the protection and ardent support of the monarchy.

13. The International Importance of the Ethiopian Ge'ez Orthodox Bible

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox handwritten geez bible

The 9 Saints contributed greatly to the development of the Ge'ez language and literature.

The words Haymanot (religion), qess (priest), and ta'ot (idols) were introduced by the 9 Saints.

Aside from developing words for use in everyday religious language, the 9 Saints also undertook the massive task of translating the entire Bible to Ge'ez.

They were fluent in Syriac and Greek, therefore they used a Syrio-Greek Bible, which they translated.

It is believed that each of the 9 Saints took a part of the Bible and translated it; this is evident in the differences in the style of writing from Book to another.

The Ethiopian Bible is one of the earliest ever bible translations, and therefore it is vital in clarifying the ancient original biblical texts.

14. The Creator and Father of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church Music

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox saint yared father church music

Yared, an Axumite scholar at the time of the 9 Saints is considered the father of Ethiopian Church music.

He is believed to have been a disciple of the Saints, namely Aregawi. To this day, Yared's 3 mode music is still practiced by the Ethiopian Church.

The sounds he created are vivid in their expression and inspiration.

The 9 Saints also influenced to art and architecture in Ethiopia.

The ruins found in the ancient cities of Axum, Adulis and Hawlti show a resemblance to Syriac churches and the Saint Aregawi's work at Debra Damo shows the oldest existing example of Christian architecture in Ethiopia.

15. One of the Oldest Church School Systems in the World is Ethiopian in Origin

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox church schools

The Ethiopian Church school system which began in 4th century Axum is one of the oldest in the Christian world.

Since that time it has expanded greatly covering almost all of Ethiopia's land mass. For centuries they were important learning centers.

The Ethiopian Church school system has the following divisions:

1. Nebab Bete or Reading School

2. Qedase Bete or Liturgy School

3. Zema Bete or Music School

4. Qene Bete or Poetry School

5. Metsehaf Bete or Literature School

The Debtera class within the Ethiopian Church is an order of singers which can be closely compared to choirs in other churches.

The Debtera are a class by themselves and are not ordained as deacons and priests, yet they help with the services.

They are taught in special schools in the way of Church music, and their dance and performances are done with solemnity and sanctity making them a unique Christendom.

Their rhythmic steps and movements along with the music add an ecclesial beauty to the worship.

16. The Many Books of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox ancient bibles

The Ethiopian Orthodox Bible is made up of 81 Books, of which 35 of the Books are the New Testament and 46 are of the Old Testament.

Most of these Books have writings detailing a number of happenings, such as that of Moses, Maccabeus, Noah, Ezra, Enoch, Jubilees, Ascension of Isaiah, Nehemiah, the Paralipomena of Baruch and Tobit.

These Books are considered a valuable source of knowledge for scholars because either the Ge'ez version is the only existing or due to its authoritativeness.

17. The Most Important Book in Ethiopian Literature

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox kebre negast

The Kebre Negast or the Glory of Kings is considered to be one of Ethiopia's most important works of literature.

It was collected and written by Nebura'ed Yeshaq, a native of Axum.

Yeshaq gathered together and synchronized the many legends and stories that are an intricate part of Ethiopian life.

The book contains symbolism, history, and allegory and is centered on the story of Queen Sheba of Ethiopia meeting King Solomon of Israel and birthing a son Menelik I.

18. The Ethiopian Church Prophecy of Emperor Tewodros II

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox emperor tewodros prophecy

By the 15th century, 2 important and original religious Ethiopian literary works would come to the forefront: Fekkare Iyasus (Explication of Christ) and Mystery of Heaven and Earth.

Fekkare Iyasus would in a messianic tone, foretell the coming of a king by the name of Tewodros, who would bring peace to the realm.

This prophecy is famous because by mid-19th century Emperor Tewodros II would choose this very name as his throne name.

The Mystery of Heaven and Earth was a philosophical work which explained the eternal struggle between good and evil.

19. The Destruction of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox church ruins

It was in the 16th century that Ethiopia underwent drastic changes.

This was caused by the Muslim invasions that brought about an extensive campaign of destroying churches, monasteries, and manuscripts all over the country.

Though devastating to the Christian heritage of the country, enough was hidden away and preserved to bring about the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church's revival.

20. The Beautiful Paintings and Illustrations of Ethiopia

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox antique wood painting

Aside from a few rock carvings and drawings which show scenes of humans and animals, Ethiopian paintings are almost completely church/religion related.

The Ethiopian Church dictated the type and purpose of all paintings in Ethiopia. Paintings found on icons, church murals, and in manuscripts focus on attempting to use clarity to express an idea, as opposed to giving the artist/viewer pleasure.

21. How the Ethiopian Church Makes Manuscripts

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox church manuscripts books

The height of Ethiopian artistic endeavors was reached during the 15th and 18th centuries, through drawings on manuscripts.

The highest quality manuscripts were done using goat skins while the lower quality used sheep skins.

The writings are often done in heavy black and decorated script with the occasional use of red.

Page sizes vary, with the text being written in 1-3 columns according to the size of the page.

Illustrations and drawings can be found throughout the manuscripts' writings and often occupying the whole page.

The page skins are put together groups usually consisting of 10 pages, which are bound between wooden boards which are usually covered with tooled leather.

To make it more portable, a leather case with straps is also sometimes employed.

22. Ethiopian's Most Favored and Venerated Character in the Bible

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox virgin mary st. mary painting

Of all the angels, evangelists, martyrs, saints and other characters of the Bible, the Virgin Mary or St. Mary holds a special place in Ethiopian paintings and she is the most drawn subject.

The faith of Ethiopians upon St. Mary is expressed in various ways, for example, some illustrations portray her as a humble, girl of youth, while others portray her as mature and strong, and capable of protecting the Ethiopian people.

23. How Ethiopia's Isolation Helped Her Preserve the Original Religion

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox isolated churches

The Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church is one of the only Christian churches in the world that were able to preserve its original form of worship from the 4th century.

The country's geographical location and historical developments has helped it remain isolated from the rest of Christendom, beginning from the 7th century.

24. Inside the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox holy of holies inside church

The Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church has a circular or octagonal structure with 3 concentric rings.

The Mekdes (Sanctuary) or Qeddusa (Holy of Holies) is located in the innermost part of the Church, which can only be used by priests and deacons. Resting upon a Menbir (alter), the Tabot (Ark of the Covenant) symbolizes the sanctity of the church. The blessing of the Tabot by the Abuna (Head Priest) represents the consecration of the church and without the Tabot residing in the church, services cannot be held.

The 2nd concentric chamber is the Kidist which is where those who receive the Sacrament may enter, though female and male are separated. The Kidist is reserved for those who are pure and regularly fast which is the reason mostly the elderly, infants, and babies are often present.

The 3rd chamber of the church is the outer area or Qene Mahelet (Cantors Place) which is divided into 3 sections by the use of curtains. The western part is given over to the Debteras (Cantors) who sing hymns and praise the Almighty with the use of musical instruments, such as drums, sistra, and prayer sticks.

The southern door is reserved for women only yet men can sometimes use it. The northern and eastern doors are reserved for men and women cannot use them.

Those who feel themselves to be "unclean" will remain in the courtyard.

The area of the church immediately outside and its walls are also considered sacred and standing close to the area is considered attending church.

25. How the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Conducts Service

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox church services

There are two types of Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church service, the indoor and the outdoor.

The indoor service to celebrate Mass is conducted in the innermost area, where the Tabot rests with a minimum of 5-7 people, usually consisting of 2 priests and 3 deacons.

Those conducting the service are expected to refrain from food for at least 12 hours prior to conducting the rituals.

The bread and wine are prepared by one of the deacons in the church's courtyard in a small building known as the Bethlehem.

26. The Schedule/Times of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox church schedules

The times allocated to the services largely depend on holidays and fasting days. During fasting periods, most church services begin at 1 pm (some churches/monasteries begin at 3 pm).

It will most often last about 2 hours but can be shortened or lengthened depending on the situation.

On Sundays, most Ethiopian Church services begin at 6 am, though some monasteries/churches begin 5 am.

In the capital Addis Ababa, some churches have opted to begin service at 7 am and 8 am on Saturdays except on Holy Saturday when it begins on noon.

Mass on Easter day, is conducted at 1am, and on Christmas at 4 am.

Outdoor services orchestrated by Debteras and priests vary widely but mostly it begins at 7 am until the service is given back to those in the Holy of Holies.

During the fasting period, the outdoor service begins at 6 am and goes on till 1 pm.

A short service towards the end of Mass has the faithful reciting the Qene or an epic type of verse.

27. Every Follower of the Ethiopian Church Must Pray 7 Times a Day

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox church prayer times

Followers of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church are supposed to pray 7 times a day. The following illustrates the correct way for conducting these prayers:

1st upon getting up from bed in the morning

2nd at the third hour

3rd at the sixth hour

4th at the ninth hour

5th the evening prayer

6th the prayer before sleep

7th the midnight prayer

The evening and morning prayers are required to be done at church, with a special emphasis on Saturdays and Sundays.

All those who disregard their prayers, unless sick are to be cut off from the congregation of the faithful.

Even those who are sick must attempt to attend church, as they could be healed.

The rest of the prayers are to be done at home, but if one is in a place where they cannot pray, they should do it mentally.

28. The Rules of Fasting for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox church fasting rules

The Ethiopian Tewadeho Orthodox Church adheres to the Fetha Negast which defines the rules of fasting.

It states that fasting is to refrain from food, and is done by the faithful at certain times to gain forgiveness for their sins and to be rewarded for it.

Fasting is said to weaken the body's conscious force therefore the rational soul can observe God's laws.

Fasting is strictly required by all those who are faithful to the Ethiopian church.

There are about 250 fasting days in a year, though these are not all required for everyone.

The average person can fast about 180 days a year.

The following are 7 official fasting periods for the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church:

1. Every Wednesdays and Fridays, aside from the 50 days after Easter.

2. The Lent fast which is for 55 days.

3. The Nineveh fast which is for 3 days.

4. The Vigils (Gahad) which is for Christmas and the Epiphany.

5. The Apostles fast of St. Peter and St. Paul which varies according to the date of Easter but has a minimum of 14 days and a maximum of 44 days. (Compulsory for clergy only but others may join)

6. The Prophets fast which is for 43 days. (Compulsory for clergy only but others may join)

7. The Assumption fast which is for 15 days in August.

Aside from the Apostles and Prophets fast, all the others are considered obligatory for all the faithful except for children under the age of 7, pregnant women, the very ill, and travelers.

During fasting, meat and all animal products such as milk, butter and eggs are forbidden.

Furthermore, no food or drink is allowed before noon, even then it should be a simple meal.

The Holy Week requires the faithful to abstain from food till 1 pm or later. The seriously pious fast completely from Good Friday till Easter Sunday, while other followers may eat only their evening meals.

The Lent fast is broken by a joyous feast that takes place after midnight Mass at about 3 am, after the first cock crows or on Easter Sunday morning.

29. The Major and Minor Holidays of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox church holidays

All holidays of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are associated with the event that occurred during the life of Jesus Christ.

There are 9 major and 9 minor holidays that are observed and faithfully followed by the adherents of the Ethiopian Church.

Major Holidays:

1. The Incarnation

2. The Birth of Christ

3. The Epiphany

4. The Hosanna (Palm Sunday)

5. The Crucifixion

6. Easter

7. Debra Tabor (The Feast of Mount Tabor)

8. The Ascension

9. The Pentecost

Minor Holidays:

1. Sebkat (1st Sunday in Advent)

2. Berhan (2nd Sunday in Advent)

3. Nolawi (3rd Sunday in Advent)

4. Christmas Eve

5. Gizret (Circumcision)

6. Birth of Simon

7. Debra Zeit (Feast of the Mount of Olives)

8. Kana Zegalila (The Miracle of Kana)

9. Meskal (The Invention of the True Cross)

There are also 33 holidays devoted to the St. Mary, which illustrates her importance to the Christians of Ethiopia.

Other days of feast include one for each of the 12 Apostles, the martyrs: St. George, St. Stephen, and St. John the Baptist.

St. Michael and the religious reformer Emperor Zara Yaqob are also celebrated. Most feast days are celebrated monthly as opposed to annually.

On these holidays one is expected to refrain from heavy labor such as farming, manual tasks, weaving, forging metal, etc.

Holidays and Sundays are also occasions for socializing such as, having weddings, dances and sports.

30. The Radical and Anti-Reform Branch of Ethiopian Orthodox Church - Mahbere Kidusan

ethiopian tewahedo orthodox mahibere kidusan

Recently, with the rise in the numbers of Protestants and the fall in the number of Orthodox Church adherents, tensions have led to an increase in the number of hostile engagements, particularly in the southern part of the country.

Protestants blame a radical anti-reform branch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church called Mahbere Kidusan or Mahibere Kidusan as being responsible for the recent hostilities.