The Magazine of Ethiopian Airlines

Ethiopia’s Ancient Churches

A new book brings the living relics of the age-old kingdom front and center.

Ethiopia: The Living Churches of an Ancient Kingdom

By Mary Anne Fitzgerald with Philip Marsden, with photography by Nigel Pavitt, Carol Beckwith, Angela Fisher, Frederic Courbet and Justus Mulinge

Available on Amazon, at Waterstones in England, and at the Textbook Centre in Kenya

The ancient Aksumite kingdom, now a part of Ethiopia, was among the first in the world to adopt Christianity as its official state religion. In 340 AD, King Ezana commissioned the construction of the imposing basilica of St. Mary of Tsion in Aksum. It was here, the Ethiopians say, that Menelik — the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon — brought the Ark of the Covenant containing the original Ten Commandments. 

By the 6th century, nine saints from Byzantium worked to spread the faith southward, deep into the remote parts of Tigray. Many of the new faith communities they founded were deliberately inaccessible, sited atop ambas and sheer-sided mountains or carved into cliff faces reached along steep precipices. Here, the monks and hermits led a meditative existence suspended between the worldly life on the plains below and the celestial panorama above that held the promise of the kingdom of heaven.

Over the next 10 centuries, a series of spectacular churches were either built or excavated out of solid rock and decorated with a cornucopia of murals between soaring pillars, arches and cupolas.Ethiopia: The Living Churches of an Ancient Kingdomfeatures 66 of these churches, all of which are amazingly still in regular use, unveiling the secrets of their frescos, their colorful medieval history and the rich panoply of their religious festivals. This large-format, full-color volume with more than 800 superb photographs is the most comprehensive celebration yet of Ethiopia’s extraordinary Christian Orthodox heritage. Here, we share a brief selection of the book’s content, now available on Amazon (and other retailers noted to the left).

▲  Facing the sanctuary of Debre Berhan Selassie Church in Gondar, which houses a sacred replica of the Ark of the Covenant. The real Ark is kept in St. Mary of Tsion in Aksum, the holiest of Ethiopia’s churches. A mural of the Holy Trinity and the Crucifixion is featured above the sacntuary doors.

▲  An Ethiopian Orthodox priest reads a holy book in the doorway of Abuna Yemata, overlooking a 200-meter drop. The church was named after its founder, one of the nine saints from Syria who evangelized Christianity through Tigray in the 6th century. In accordance with the monastic tradition of the time, Abuna Yemata sited the church high in the mountains to be closer to God.

▲ This tiny church carved into the needle pinnacle of Guh in the Gheralta Mountains is a feat of faith and endurance. The entrance is reached by a hazardous ascent using hand- and footholds in the rock face. Priests cheerfully tell visitors that pregnant women, babies and the elderly regularly attend the Sunday services without incident.

▲ The monks of Abba Garima Monastery, near Adua, serve as guardians of what is believed to be the oldest illustrated New Testament Gospels in the world. Recent carbon dating of the two surviving volumes places their origin between 330 and 650 A.D.

▲ Mark the Evangelist depicted on one of the pages of the Gospel of St. Mark. Legend has it that Abba Garima, a saint who founded the monastery in the 6th century, wrote the 500-page Gospels in one day. By sunset he had not quite completed the task, so he prayed for intercession and God granted him an extra three hours of daylight.

▲ Cut into a rocky hillside overlooking the Hawzien plains sits Abreha wa-Atsbeha. According to its clergy, the church was founded in the 4th century by the Syrian Frumentius, the first bishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. King Ezana of Aksum and his brother King Seizana became known as Abreha and Atsbeha after Frumentius converted them to Christianity, and they were later canonized.

▲ A priest and deacons at Abreha Atsbeha take turns reading the Enkutatash liturgy during an eight-hour service that starts around midnight. Enkutatash means “gift of jewels.” When the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon in Jerusalem, she presented him with 120 talents (4.5 tons) of gold, precious stones and spices. Upon her return to Ethiopia, her nobles welcomed her with gifts of jewels to replenish her treasury.

▲ Spectacularly inaccessible, the Debre Damo Monastery perches atop a sheer-sided amba (flat-topped mountain) that is one kilometer in length.

▲ A detail of Debre Damo’s exquisitely carved coffered wooden ceiling dating from the 6th or 7th century. This remarkable architectural feature includes 30 wooden panels of elephants, lions, rhinos, antelopes and camels, as well as abstract Byzantine patterns. The animal panels may have come from an Aksum palace.