The Ethiopian church was the only state church in the Orient that remained intact from early times into the late twentieth century, when it was separated from the secular state by a revolutionary decree of 1974. With a membership of at least 12 million, it is still the largest single autocephalous Christian institution in Africa. In its sixteen-hundred- year history, it not only has survived devastating internal and external and dissensions but also has remained a citadel of spiritual resource, formal education, local culture, art, and architecture for Ethiopian society.


Though the church’s traditions go back to the introduction of Christianity in in the era of the apostles, the actual establishment of the church did not occur until about the middle of the fourth century. The ground was prepared for it by the existence in the country of Judaic elements and small Christian communities consisting of foreign traders and their local associates. The pioneer was Frumentius of Tyre, whom fate led to Axum in his youth and who grew up in the palace, where he acquainted the crown prince and other members of the royal house with Christianity. Around 330, he went to Alexandria to seek a bishop for Ethiopia, and Patriarch ATHANASIUS (328-356) chose him for the purpose, thereby laying the foundations for the lasting relationship between the Coptic and Ethiopian churches. Frumentius thus became the first abun of Ethiopia (cf. ETHIOPIAN PRELATES), where he subsequently came to be known as Abba Salama I (Father Peace) and Kasate Berhan (Revealer of Light). As a saint, he is commemorated on 26 H amle of the Ethiopian calendar.

That Frumentius succeeded in converting the royal household and that the sovereign transferred his divine role of pre-Christian cult to the new religion facilitated immensely the peaceful establishment, expansion, and protection of the church. Throughout the centuries, the sovereign remained the protector and Alexandria the source of the faith. It was because of the cooperation of Frumentius and King ‘Ezana (c. 327-357) that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church remained pro-Nicene, despite the attempts of Constantius (337-361) to introduce ARIANISM into the country. King Kaleb (c. 515-545) also led two military expeditions, in 523 and 525, on behalf of the Christians of Najran in South Arabia, who were besieged by the Jews.

The expansion of Christianity in was further aided by an influx of its followers who had been persecuted by the pro- Chalcedonians in the Byzantine empire in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. These immigrants brought with them their priests, books, and church articles, thereby enriching the institution of the church in Ethiopia. They settled in various parts of northern Ethiopia and founded schools, churches, and monasteries, many of which still bear their names. Missionaries went out from these monasteries to spread Christianity among the pagan Amhara and Agaw peoples farther south. Their activities were encouraged, and at times required, by the sovereigns, who gradually moved their political seat to the central highlands partly because of external pressures and partly for reasons of further conquest and territorial gains. Some of the sovereigns were zealous not only to defend the faith against internal and external threats and to support the church through bountiful land grants but also to reform some of the religious practices and to impose Christianity on all areas under their rule. Among such rulers was Emperor Zar’a Ya‘qob (1434-1468), who had authored several works on religious themes, introduced many reforms, and obliged pagan remnants to accept Christianity. Emperor Sarsa Dengel (1563-1597) carried the religion farther south to the kingdom of Ennarya beyond the Gibe.

But both the church and the secular state suffered a series of setbacks in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Comparable in severity to the devastating war of the Falasha (Ethiopian Jews) in the tenth century was the invasion of the Muslims led by Imam Ahmad Muhammad al-Ghazi of Zeila, aided by a Turkish military contingent, in 1527-1543. Numerous churches were burned, books were mutilated, and a great number of Christians perished or were forced to profess Islam. With the help of a Portuguese force, Emperor Galawdewos (1540-1559) succeeded in freeing the country and reestablishing the church. This success was nonetheless temporary, as a horde of pagan invaders known as the Oromo or Galla struck from the southeast and quickly invaded the greater part of the empire, burning churches and killing or assimilating the Christians. The Portuguese, too, demanded compensation in the form of territorial grants and the investiture of a Catholic bishop who could head the Ethiopian church.

This provoked civil upheavals, and the emperor had to banish the Portuguese. Several attempts were thereafter made on the part of the Catholics to convert the Ethiopians, and missionaries were repeatedly sent to the country. The most significant of the missionaries was the Jesuit Pedro Páez, who arrived in shortly after 1600 and began to teach children and translate books in northern Ethiopia. He subsequently gained access to the imperial court and brought two or more princes under his influence. One of these was Susenyos, who became supreme ruler after killing his reigning cousin in a battle in 1607, in which the Coptic metropolitan also fell. Susenyos and some of his officials were secretly converted to Catholicism and entered into correspondence with the pope of Rome and the emperor of Spain. Páez died in 1621, and a bishop named Alfonso Mendez arrived in the next year.

The emperor was soon converted, and the bishop began to exercise his authority over the rights and properties of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In 1626 a civil war broke out that lasted about six years and led to the abdication of the emperor in favor of his son, who remained faithful to the orthodox religion. The missionaries were expelled, and Europeans were thereafter regarded with hostility for at least a hundred and fifty years. The Ethiopian Catholics were either executed or obliged to recant their new faith. Only since 1838 have European missionaries been again permitted to teach and then almost exclusively in the so-called open areas, where the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has had little or no influence, though they have also been allowed to conduct their activities in the Christian areas so long as they do not interfere with affairs of the church and render medical and educational services to the public.

After the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1633, the church could still have no peace, as Christological disputes broke out within the church itself, leading to a series of inconclusive councils and violent conflicts. In principle, the doctrine of the church was already set with the translation from the Greek of Qerelos (the Book of Cyril) in the sixth century, followed by other works from the Syriac and the Arabic (see ETHIOPIAN CHRISTIAN LITERATURE). But the translations were by no means standardized. Sometimes the same concept was rendered by different Ethiopic terms, and sometimes one Ethiopic term was used to translate different concepts.

Time and again, disagreements broke out among the clerics on some point of teaching. Often the state settled their differences by force. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, the state itself suffered from dissensions and was scarcely in a position to deal with the problems of the church. The various princes allied with one or another religious faction and tried not only to assert their power but also to promote the tenets of their allies. The controversy revolved mainly around the nature of Christ—whether the inseparable union of his divinity and humanity took place at the time of his conception or on the occasion of his baptism at the river Jordan and whether Christ replaced Adam as the firstborn son of God’s grace.

The church was divided into three factions, each dominating a particular region and each contemptuously nicknaming the others. Hence, a situation was created in which three denominations could have developed from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Emperor Yohannes IV (1872-1889), who believed that the union of religion and the state was as essential as that of the body and the soul, consulted the patriarch of Alexandria and summoned a national council at Boru Meda in 1878. The council endorsed the tenet that Christ’s divinity was from eternity and that the inseparable union of his divinity and humanity took place at the time of incarnation. All those who refused to conform with the decisions of the council were declared heretics and were dealt with accordingly. The subsequent monarchs upheld the same policy, and although some differing sentiments are still discernible, the church has had no more such disputes since then.

Organizational Structure and Hierarchy

The spiritual head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has been the abun, who traditionally had to be a ordained by the patriarch of Alexandria. However, an Ethiopian acceded to the metropolitanate for the first time in 1951 and was promoted to the status of patriarch in 1957, in accordance with the diplomatic arrangements made between the Ethiopian government and the See of Alexandria (see ETHIOPIAN CHURCH AUTOCEPHALY). The counterpart of the abun had always been an Ethiopian dignitary from one of the monasteries who acted as the overseer of the general administrative affairs of the church. In the last four or five hundred years, this office was dominated by the ECCAGE of Dabra Libanos who acted both as liaison between the church and the state and as judge for clerical cases. His role on the national level diminished with the establishment of the Beta Kehnat (central church administration office) in the twentieth century.

From the viewpoint of internal administration, the churches and monasteries have always been autonomous, each having belonged to the community that had founded and maintained it. Their material wealth was therefore scarcely uniform until the Provisional Military Council nationalized all landed properties by a decree of 1975. The churches were grouped under two heads. First were the adbarat (sing. dabr), usually located in monasteries and large community centers; they were full-fledged churches enjoying rights and privileges granted to them throughout the centuries and, to a greater or lesser extent, owning land, animal stock, schools, and libraries. Often they were well staffed with priests, deacons, musicians, and teachers, at the head of which was the alaqa (dean), appointed by the sovereign or his representative or elected by his society. The other group consisted of the gatar, minor churches staffed by five or seven clerics and serving small communities distant from the dabr that had jurisdiction over the area. Any of the gatar churches could, under special circumstances, develop into a dabr.

Education and Literature

The church was for centuries the only Christian institution that sponsored formal education in Ethiopia. The schools were in principle open to both sexes, though the male pupils were by far the majority at all times. Basic education consisted of reading and, to a limited extent, writing, as well as reciting the Lord’s Prayer, the Nicene Creed, and the Hail Mary, and chanting portions or the whole of the Psalterium. Relatively few went to the higher institutions of learning, which were organized in three faculties: the qene bet (school of poetry), in which grammar, comparative history, and various aspects of poetry could be studied; the zema bet (school of music), where the elaborate compositions of the axumite Saint Yared and his successors were offered; and the tergum bet (school of interpretation), where studies of the Holy Scriptures, the works of the ancient fathers, and ecclesiastical and civil laws could be pursued.

The Holy Bible of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church consists of forty-six books of the Old and thirty-five books of the New Testaments, eighty-one books in all. The various books of the Bible were translated into Ge‘ez at different times before the end of the seventh century of the Christian era from the Septuagint and Syriac versions. Apart from the translations of various works from the Greek, the Syriac, the Arabic, and possibly the Coptic, a number of hagiographies, encomiums, and commentaries were also produced in the country itself.

The ETHIOPIAN LITURGY is based on the Holy Scriptures and the compositions of the early fathers, and the congregation participates in all celebrations. The mass is said by a minimum of five celebrants—three priests and two deacons. In its teachings, the church lays due emphasis on the seven mysteries: baptism, the Eucharist, of sin, resurrection of the dead, matrimony, priesthood, and extreme unction. The last one is scarcely practiced. The fasts of Ninevah, Lent, the Apostles, the Assumption of the Virgin, and the prophets are observed, while Christ’s birth, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, as well as Pentecost, Saint John’s Day or New Year, and the Day of the Holy

Cross is among the major holy days celebrated with elaborate church services.

Architecture and Paintings

The church has also been the Ethiopian institution richest in architecture and paintings. Because of the political circumstances that prevailed in the country for centuries, very few secular edifices were erected after the Axumite era. Instead, much investment went into the churches, thousands of which were built and rebuilt as well as decorated with paintings and ornaments. The majority of the church are round, though some of the oldest ones have rectangular or even polyangular forms. Every church is divided into three parts, each with a specific purpose. Entering from the porch, one reaches the qene makhlet (choir), separated from the inner circle by a wall concentric with the exterior wall. This passagelike room extends around the entire building and is devoted to the laymen as well as to the ritual dances and singing of the clergy.

A few doors lead into the inner circular room known as the maqdas (sanctuary) where the mass is celebrated. The lay members enter it mainly to receive the Holy Communion. In the center of the maqdas is a square room, likewise separated by walls and known as the qeddesta qeddusan (holy of holies). It is accessible through a small entrance, and only the celebrant priests may enter it. The tabot (the ark of the Decalogue) and the holy books are deposited here. Almost all the walls are covered with paintings that depict motives from the Holy Scriptures, lives of saints and martyrs, and particulars from Ethiopian history. Many of the books are also illustrated and ornamented.


  • Bonk, J. An Annotated and Classified Bibliography of English Literature Pertaining to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Metuchen, N. J., 1984.
  • Crummey, D. “Orthodoxy and Imperial Reconstruction in 1854-1878.” Journal of Theological Studies 29 (1978):427-42. Geddes, M. The Church-History of . London, 1696.
  • Gerster, G., et al. Kirchen im Fels: Entdeckungen in Äthiopien. Zurich, 1972.
  • Guèbrè Sellassié. Chronique du règne de Ménélik II: Roi des rois d’Ethiopie, 2 vols., ed. M. Coppet. Paris, 1930-1931.
  • Heiler, F. Die Ostkirchen. Munich, 1971.
  • Heyer, F. Die Kirche Äthiopiens: Eine Bestandsaufnahme. Berlin and New York, 1971.
  • . “Die orthodoxe Kirche Äthiopiens in der krisenhaften Zuspitzung der Lage des Landes.” Ökumenische Rundschau 26 (1977):196-204.
  • . “Die orthodoxe Kirche Äthiopiens im 5. Revolutionsjahr.” Ökumenische Rundschau 28 (1979):327-33.
  • Hyatt, H. M. The Church of . London, 1928.
  • Rossini, C. Storia d’Etiopia, Vol. 1. Africa italiana 3. Milan, 1928. Sergew Hable Selassie. Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270. Addis Ababa, 1971.
  • Taddesse Tamrat. Church and State in Ethiopia, 1270-1527. Oxford, 1972.
  • Tesfazghi U. Current Christological Positions of Ethiopian Orthodox Theologians. Rome, 1973.
  • Weischer, B. M. Qérellos III: Der Dialog “Dass Christus Einer Ist” des Kyrillos von Alexandria, ed. E. Hammerschmidt. Äthiopistische Forschungen 2. Wiesbaden, 1977.
  • Yocob Beyene. L’unzione di Cristo nella teologia etiopica. Rome, 1981.