Warning: A non-numeric value encountered in /home/web2cowi/public_html/wp-content/themes/astra/inc/class-astra-dynamic-css.php on line 3458
Ethiopian Liturgy - Coptic Wiki


One of the key factors in the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has been its ecclesiastical dependence on the Coptic church of Alexandria. This has been so great that for most of its known history, it has been headed by a bishop of Egyptian birth and education chosen by the Coptic patriarch. This dependence has inevitably been a powerful force, tending to maintain the conformity of the Ethiopian liturgy with that of the mother church of Alexandria. A closer look at the liturgies of the two churches, however, reveals that the conformity is by no means complete. It turns out, in fact, to be notably less than the liturgical conformity to be found in the daughter churches of the churches of Rome, Constantinople and Seleucia-Ctesiphon.

The explanation of this curious paradox may lie in the fact that the Egyptian metropolitans who headed the church of Ethiopia, being foreigners at the time of their appointment, had little knowledge of Ethiopia, its people, and their language. It required, therefore, metropolitans of more than ordinary force of character and ability to exercise much influence over the church confided to them. Some such metropolitans there were during the course of history, such as Salama II and III (see ETHIOPIAN PRELATES), but the impression one gleans from the chronicles of Ethiopia is that these were relatively rare exceptions. The strongest influence on the church of Ethiopia was clearly exercised by the emperors and their ecclesiastical advisers who came from the world of Ethiopian monasticism.

It must be noted that knowledge of the history of the Ethiopian liturgy is severely limited by an almost complete absence of documents antedating the fifteenth century and by a lack of in-depth studies of the material that is available, by scholars with a competency in comparative liturgy. The collection and of materials is still, for the most part, in its preliminary stage. Any conclusions that may be drawn as to the significance of these materials is therefore merely tentative at this time.

In general, the conformity between the Coptic and Ethiopian liturgies is greatest in sacerdotal and least in offices of prayer and chant. This is what one might have anticipated. Priests, of necessity, could be ordained by the Egyptian metropolitan alone, and he would be in a position to insist that for ordination first learn the ceremonies that he judged proper. Offices, on the other hand, consist largely of chant that would to a great extent be governed by the exigencies of Ge‘ez, the liturgical language, and of Ethiopian music and would be executed by clergymen, called dabtaras or scribes, who, as such, would not receive ordination and whose education was obtained in certain monasteries, without reference to, or control by, the metropolitan.

Turning to particular ceremonies, one finds a substantial conformity with the Coptic liturgy in the qeddase, the eucharistic service or mass, but rather surprising differences in detail. The principal found in the Coptic Ordinary recur in the Ethiopian; for example, the preparation of the altar, the preparation procession and blessing of the gifts, the absolution, the incensing, the of the four scriptural lessons, the prayers, the recitation of the Creed, the washing of hands, the kiss of peace, the use of the eucharistic anaphora, and so on. Similarly, one finds all the properly sacerdotal prayers of the Coptic liturgy faithfully repeated in the Ethiopian liturgy and in the same order, such as the prayers before and after the preparation of the altar, prayer of thanksgiving and offertory, the Absolution to the Son, the prayers for the different readings, and so on.

Nevertheless, the differences to be found in the Ordinary are confined to secondary prayers or that the Ethiopian liturgy has but the Coptic lacks, or much less frequently, the Coptic has and the Ethiopian lacks, or to minor variations of order. Some points deserve particular mention. At each mass the Ethiopians bless the material objects that come in direct contact with the Eucharist—that is, the paten, the chalice, and the spoon—and have even added in recent times at the very beginning of their missals the prayers by which Coptic bishops consecrate these instruments. For the procession with the gifts, the Ethiopians also have a chant not found in the Coptic liturgy, “How dread is this place,” which is chanted by both Syrian and Chaldean deacons at the solemn epiclesis (petition for the consecration of the bread and wine) of their liturgies.

Did Ethiopian pilgrims to Jerusalem encounter this chant and bring it back with them to Ethiopia? Again, the prayers precede the scriptural lessons in the Ethiopian liturgy, but follow them in the Coptic. If one may judge from the texts of these prayers, which are the same in both churches, they were originally composed to prepare the hearers to profit from the lessons, so that the Ethiopian order would seem to be more ancient. The same is clearly also true of the formula for dismissing catechumens, which the Ethiopian liturgy has preserved but the Coptic has long since discarded.

When one turns to the anaphora, the central prayer of the eucharistic service, the differences seem astonishingly great. Whereas the Coptic church today has only three anaphoras, the Ethiopian church has in its printed missal no less than fourteen, only one of which, the THE GREAT, is found with the Copts. Six other anaphoras can be found in manuscripts (including the Anaphora of Saint MARK, used by the Copts), but with the exception of the Anaphora of Saint Mary (Ma‘aza qeddase) they are not commonly used by present-day orthodox churches. The Ethiopian Catholics, on the contrary, have adopted three of them in their missal, the anaphoras of Saints Mary, Mark, and James.

The anaphora most frequently used in Ethiopia is the short Anaphora of the Apostles, which is the one found in the Traditio apostolica of Saint Hippolytus (Duensing, 1946, pp. 20-30; Quasten, 1935, pp. 26-33), expanded somewhat to provide intercessions and adapted to conform to the Ethiopian liturgical order. This is the anaphora that is always incorporated in missals, both manuscript and printed, in the Ordinary. It is usually assumed, therefore, that this is the original anaphora of the Ethiopian church, much as Mark’s is the anaphora of Alexandria and James’s that of Jerusalem, but the assumption seems rather dubious. It simply does not suit the characteristic order of the Ethiopian anaphora, which has at least two notable peculiarities.

The order of the second and third exchanges between the celebrant and the people in the prefatory dialogue is the opposite of what is observed in other churches (“Let us give thanks to the Lord.” “It is right and just.” “Lift up your hearts.” “We have to the Lord”), and the anaphoral prayer is divided into three parts. If the Anaphora of the Apostles were the original Ethiopian anaphora, one would expect that its opening words would refer to the last exchange (“Lift up your hearts.” “We have to the Lord”), but they actually refer to the previous exchange. This suggests that the actual order of the Ethiopian prefatory dialogue was intended to introduce not the Anaphora of the Apostles but some other. Furthermore, this anaphora is so short that dividing it into three parts makes little sense, and the divisions occur at points that awkwardly interrupt the flow of ideas. One is led by this to the conclusion that the anaphora has been made to conform to a preexisting pattern.

The church of Ethiopia has two anaphoras to which these objections do not apply, the anaphoras of Saints John, Son of Thunder, and Cyril. Their incipits (“To thee, Lord, we have lifted up our eyes,” and “To thee, Lord, God of gods”) refer to the final exchange of the Ethiopian prefatory dialogue, and the two breaks in these anaphoras occur at natural pauses in the thought. It would be tempting to think, therefore, that one of these was the original anaphora of Ethiopia. However, Getatchew Haile has pointed out (1981, pp. 116-33) that both anaphoras reflect doctrinal controversies that were rife in Ethiopia during the fourteenth century. Perhaps, then, both of these anaphoras were composed in the pattern of another anaphora now lost; perhaps one of them is the ancient anaphora, but its text has been reworked; or possibly the fourteenth-century controversies merely continue or repeat much earlier controversies of a time when the ancient anaphora would have been composed.

This raises the question of the origin of the Ethiopian anaphoras. Clearly the anaphoras of the Apostles, the Lord, and Saints Basil, Mark, and James are translations of anaphoras derived from other churches, presumably all through the Coptic church. All the others seem to be of Ethiopian authorship. This is true even of the popular Anaphora of Saint Mary, which is attributed in the manuscripts to Cyriacus, bishop of al-Bahnasa, for, as Getatchew Haile has again pointed out (1983, pp. 376-89), it, like the two anaphoras mentioned above, reflects strictly Ethiopian theological debates of the Middle Ages and may with probability be ascribed to Abba Samuel of Wali. The liturgical structure of these anaphoras is remarkably varied.

Some include unusual elements, such as exhortations and eschatological contemplations; in others, the anamnesis does not explicitly mention the Passion and Resurrection of Christ; and in still others, the epiclesis does not petition the transformation of the gifts into the Body and Blood of Christ.

The Ethiopian liturgies of the other sacraments have been much less studied than that of the Eucharist. However, the close relationship between them and their Coptic counterparts is obvious from even the most casual comparison. This is especially true of the rite of ordination, which was translated from Coptic into Ge‘ez only in very recent times when the church of Ethiopia was at last granted an indigenous hierarchy. Similarly, the Masehafa qeder, the rite of penitential baptism for apostates, seems to be a direct translation from the Coptic church. With the rite of baptism, on the other hand, one finds at least two noteworthy differences.

The Coptic rite, which Ethiopian Catholics follow, has three oils that are used to anoint the baptized and to mix with the baptismal waters. The Ethiopian Orthodox, on the contrary, now use only two oils, they do not anoint the baptized after their of Christ (formerly, according to manuscripts, they did), and do not pour oil into the baptismal water before the scriptural lessons. The other peculiarity of Ethiopian baptism is that the neophytes, after communion in the Eucharist, are given milk and honey, following the prescription of Saint Hippolytus in his Traditio apostolica.

Ethiopian chant and the composition of the Ethiopian antiphonary, or Deggwa, are attributed to Saint Yared, who is supposed to have lived at the time of King Gabra Masqal in the seventh century. Unfortunately, the relationship between the Ethiopian Deggwa and the Coptic DIFNAR has not been studied. Velat has done valiant spadework on the Me‘raf, the Ethiopian Ordinary, but its relationship to its Coptic counterpart is again unclear. The Coptic horologion, on the other hand, was translated into Ge‘ez and, judging from surviving manuscripts, seems to have been extensively used during the Middle Ages (the Ethiopian Catholics have revived its use in recent times); but it was supplanted by an indigenous horologion composed around 1400 by Giyorgis of Sagla.

Getatchew Haile has analyzed both (e.g., 1982, pp. 4-10, 176-83), but a casual comparison of the two reveals almost nothing in common. At least the sistrum that Ethiopian clergymen use while chanting their divine office is clearly derived from Egypt. One suspects a priori that the influence of the Coptic on the Ethiopian divine office must be vastly greater than just that, but unfortunately, the studies that will identify the elements of that influence have yet to be made. On the other hand, the stately liturgical dance that the Ethiopians perform during their festive offices seems to be a strictly indigenous creation.


  • Colin, G. Vie de Georges de Sagla. In CSCO 492, Scriptores
  • Aethiopici 81; CSCO 493, Scriptores Aethiopici Louvain, 1987.
  • Daoud, M., and M. Hazen. The Liturgy of the Ethiopian Church. Cairo, 1959.
  • Denzinger, H. Ritus Orientalium, Coptorum, Syrorum et Armenorum, in Administrandis Sacramentis, Vol. 1, pp. 222-33, 411-14. Wurzburg, 1863.
  • Duensing, H., ed. Der aethiopische Text der Kirchenordnung des Hippolyt. Abhandlungen der Akademie der in Göttingen, Philologisch-Historische Klasse, Vol. 3, no. 32, pp.
  • 20-30. Göttingen, 1946.
  • Getatchew Haile. “Religious Controversies and the Growth of Ethiopic in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries.” Oriens Christianus 65 (1981):102-136.
  • . A Catalogue of Ethiopian Manuscripts Microfilmed for the Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library . . . , Vol. 6. Collegeville, Minn., 1982.
  • . “On the Identity of Silondis and the Composition of the Anaphora of Mary Ascribed to Hereyaqos of Behensa.” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 49 (1983):366-89.
  • Hammerschmidt, E. “Zur Bibliographie äthiopischer Anaphoren.” Ostkirchliche Studien 5 (1956):285-90.
  • . Studies in the Ethiopic Anaphoras. Berliner Byzantinische Arbeiten 25. Berlin, 1961.
  • Mercer, S. A. B. The Ethiopic Liturgy: Its Sources, Development, and Present Form. London, 1915.
  • Quasten, J., ed. Monumenta eucharistica et liturgica vetustissima, pt. 1, pp. 26-33. Bonn, 1935.
  • Raes, A. Introductio in Liturgiam Orientalem. Rome, 1947.
  • . “Il rito etiopico.” In Enciclopedia Cattolica, Vol. 5, cols. 701f. Vatican City, 1950.
  • Sauget, J. M. Bibliographie des liturgies orientales (1900-1960), pp. 94-101. Rome, 1962.
  • Tecle Mariam, Semharay Selam. De SS. Sacramentis Secundum Ritum Aethiopicum. Rome, 1931.
  • Velat, B. Etudes sur le Me‘eraf, commun de l’office éthiopien. In PO 33. Paris, 1966.
  • . Me‘eraf, commun de l’office divin éthiopien pour toute l’année. In PO 34, pp. 59-160. Paris, 1966.
  • . Soma Deggua, antiphonaire du carême, quatre premières semaines. In PO 32. Paris, 1966.