Module Twenty Two, Activity Three

Religions of Ethiopia

The purpose of this lesson is to engage you in thinking about religion around the world in the past and present. Along with this you will see how religion has influenced the country of Ethiopia. The country has many ancient traditions that still shape the country today.

There is a video entitled “Africa: Mountains of Faith” that was put out by PBS in 2001. It can be another resource used along with this lesson. Go to for the website and resources on this video series.

Read the focus questions below. As you learn more about religion in Ethiopia, think about these questions and find answers to them. Focus Questions for the lesson:

  1. What role does the Queen of Sheba play in African history?
  2. What are some of the religious aspects of Ethiopian society?
  3. How does architecture in Ethiopia show the influence of foreign states and the end of African isolation?
  4. What are the achievements of Christian art and architecture?
  5. What are the three main religions of Ethiopia and how have those three religions interacted in the past and present?

Religion in Ethiopia
Ethiopia’s location at the intersection of and control of trade routes helped to bring certain religions to Ethiopia.  As is the case with many civilizations in Europe and Asia, religion played a central role in shaping the history and culture of Ethiopia.  The mountainous landscape of the country would protect Ethiopia and the many religions that it is home to. Ethiopia was one of the first countries that would adopt Christianity as their state religion. Christianity is not the only religion that is found in Ethiopia though – nor is it the only historically important religion in Ethiopia. In this multi-ethnic country religions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and indigenous  African religions are practiced. Religion in Ethiopia heavily influences the society, landscape, and culture of Ethiopia. Those of differing religions live together in peace in Ethiopia (though this may not always have been the case).

Orthodox Christianity began to be the state religion during the reign of King Ezana during the Axsumite Empire in 333 C.E. (it is believed though that Christianity was known before this time in Ethiopia).  The book of Acts in the New Testament of the Christian Bible gives the account, at the very beginning of Christianity, of the conversion of an Ethiopian official who was on his way home after visiting Jerusalem.  Frumentius, a captured Roman citizen, is credited for converting King Ezana into a Christian. During his stay in Ethiopia he encouraged the Christian merchants to practice their religion openly and eventually would convert many natives as well. King Ezana himself would become baptized and would make Christianity the state religion. During the next centuries Christianity was voluntarily adopted by most Ethiopians.  Christianity that is practiced in Ethiopia is  unique and traditional. The mountainous landscape of Ethiopia has protected the Ethiopian Christians from the outside world, allowing the old Christian traditions of Ethiopia to remain the same and not be influenced by others forms of Christianity.  It is important to recognize that Ethiopia became an official Christian state at almost the same time that Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the official region of the Roman Empire very early in the fourth century CE.  The historical roots of Christianity are as deep in Africa (Ethiopia and Egypt) as they are in Europe.

Queen of Sheba
Taken from Wikipedia Commons

Queen of Sheba
A central tenet of the church is the story of the Queen of Sheba. It is said that the queen traveled from Axsum to Jerusalem to meet King Solomon in about 960 BCE. During the visit they believe that the Queen of Sheba had relations with King Solomon and then produced a child, who would become the first emperor of the Solomonic Dynasty, Emperor Menelik I. In Ethiopia it is believed that Menelik then traveled to see King Solomon and it was during that visit that Menelik was believed to have taken the Ark of the Covenant under the cover of the night and brought it to Axsum where Ethiopians say it still resides today in St. Mary’s Church. Ethiopians believe that Ethiopia is God’s Chosen Country since they are home to the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant (the Ark of the Covenant is claimed to be where the Ten Commandments were stored). The Queen of Sheba thus, is believed to be the mother of their nation. The imperial families of Ethiopia claim their direct descent from Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, which gave them, they believe, the right to rule.

Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church (see website: and/or The Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church is an Oriental Orthodox church. Almost 50% of Ethiopians are Orthodox. The doctrine of the Ethiopian Tewahedo states that their belief is that Christ has a single, unified (human and divine) nature. It has around 40 million followers and is the largest of all the Oriental Orthodox churches. Sermons at the churches in the past were given in the language of Ge’ez (an ancient Ethiopian language) but now most services are given in the local language of the various regions of Ethiopia.

Kebra Negast (Ethiopian Holy Book) (An English translation can be found on this website: The Kebra Negast is the Book of the Glory of Kings of Ethiopia. The book itself has been in existence for what many believe to be about a thousand years. It is unknown who first wrote it. The Kebra Negast is highly regarded as the authority on the history of the conversion of Ethiopians from the worship of traditional gods to Christianity. It is said to contain the true history of the Solomonic kings in Ethiopia, along with many other things.  It is thought to have been composed around 1314-1321.

Monasteries of Ethiopia
Ethiopia is home to some of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world. Christian monasteries began in Egypt (this is one belief, others believe it began in Syria) and eventually spread to Ethiopia. A monastery is a type of religious community and varies depending on the religion and the country it is found in. There are many monasteries found in Ethiopia (one island alone—in Lake Tana- has twenty) - they spread from the islands to isolated mountain tops. The monasteries not only house monks, but traditional religious paintings that are hundreds of years old (as do many of the churches in Ethiopia). Some of the monasteries are open to women, while others are not.

Debre Damo Monastery
Photo of Debre Damo Monastery Taken from


A short list of some of the Ethiopian Monasteries:
- Debre Damo (the only way to get into the monastery is by climbing the rock wall with a rope)
- Urai Kidane Mihiret (has the most paintings)
- Debre Libano
- Gishen Maryam
- Daga Istafanos
- Tana Cherkos
- Kibran Gebriel

Many of the monasteries (as well as churches, including their paintings) are facing deterioration due to dampness and decay. Many of the paints that were used were made out of natural items like animal blood, flour, and natural dyes. Many of the buildings have been made from natural materials and are in need of repair. The paintings and buildings are centuries old but tell an amazing story of Christianity and culture in Ethiopia. Some Ethiopians are very upset that this treasure of their nation is neglected. Tourists that do come to see the monasteries, churches, and paintings pay a fee of around $2, which is shared by all of the churches, but the revenue is not sufficient to do the type of repairs needed.

Examples of paintings found in Ethiopian monasteries (taken from painting in monastery

Painting in Monastery 2

Christian Celebrations in Ethiopia (not all are listed)
Timkat – (feast of the Epiphany) Celebration of the baptism of Jesus Meskal- (Feast of the True Cross) Celebration of the finding of the true cross on which Jesus was crucified

Other Christian Denominations found in Ethiopia
The Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox is not the only denomination of Christians found in Ethiopia. There is also a population of Catholics, Protestants, and a few other denominations. Missionaries were often not welcomed into the country in order to protect the Orthodox beliefs and culture.

The Arts in Ethiopia
Ethiopian art is heavily influenced by its Christian religion and culture. The architecture of the monolithic churches, the brightly colored paintings of biblical stories, is all a part of the art in Ethiopia. During the Zagwe dynasty rock-hewn churches were built, such as Lalibela (one of the great wonders of the world).

Activity: Professor Ray Silverman (University of Michigan) has a collection of artwork from various Ethiopian artists. Please go to the following website and preview the variety of artists and their work. Look for the religious influence in the artist’s work, or look for their cultural significance. Is there any influence from outside cultures that is noticeable? Go to:

Ethiopian Hand Cross
Ethiopian Hand Cross

The spread of Islam into Ethiopia began in 615 CE when the Prophet Mohammed ordered his followers to Ethiopia to escape the persecution they were receiving in Mecca. While they were there, Mohammed ordered them to respect the religion of Ethiopia and offer them protection. This was the first migration to Ethiopia and after this, there would be another in 616 CE for the same purpose, this time almost 100 came to Ethiopia. They would return to Mecca years later. Islam would spread to the east in Ethiopia – the Harar region. Harar would become not only the Holy City for Muslims, but also a place of trade, scholarship, and great Islamic architecture. The walls that would surround Harar are influence of Islamic architecture. Many of those that practice Islam are found in the south and east, in the lowlands of Ethiopia. Islam and its contact with Ethiopia were not always welcomed in this country that had Christianity as the leading religious following. Beliefs and practices of Islam can be found in Module 14 Activity 3.

Photo of Harar and the wall that surrounds the city

Muslim Christian War in Ethiopia – 1528-1560
Mohammed’s followers would not be the only contact that Ethiopia would have with Islam.  A militant Muslim leader known as Ahmed Gragn invaded Ethiopia setting off a Muslim-Christian War in 1528. Churches and monasteries were destroyed and much of Ethiopia occupied for a short period. In 1543 with the help of the Portuguese, Gragn was killed in battle. This would not be the end of the war though. As Ethiopia tried to rebuild their churches, followers of Gragn would have constant raids. In 1559 Emperor Gelawdewos marched on the city of Harar in hopes of stopping religious sectarianism, but was instead killed in battle. This war was a major threat to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. This war also expanded the amount of land in control by the Muslims.

Islam in Ethiopia Today
Muslims in Ethiopia today make up at least 33% of the population of Ethiopia. Islam is the second main religion of Ethiopia. The influence of Islam can be seen around the country not only in the architecture (such as the mosques) but also in the economic realm, etc.

Celebrations of Islam – these celebrations follow the Islamic calendar – a lunar calendar (follows the cycles of the moon). The celebrations therefore fall on different days of the year each year. ‘Id al-Fitr – end of Ramadan ‘Id al-Adha – Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son

(For more information on Ethiopian Jews and Israel go to: )

The roots of Judaism in Ethiopia remain a mystery. There are many beliefs as to how Judaism arrived in Ethiopia. For centuries those who practice Judaism in Ethiopia have faced oppression. Many Ethiopian Jews (or Beta Israel (meaning “Lost Tribe of Israel”) as they are often called) are found around the mountainous region of Lake T’ana (a northwestern portion of Ethiopia). They relocated to the mountainous region to flee persecution, when Christianity was adopted as the official religion in the 4th century.

Hundreds of thousands of Beta Israel lived in this region. They spoke the Agaw language and would build a powerful state until the Solomonic dynasty subdued the Jewish people and seized most of their land. They would eventually give up the Agaw language and adopt Tigrinya or Amharic. Conditions worsened for the Beta Israel. Many were forced to adopt Christianity.  In 1900 only 60-70,000 still remained in Ethiopia.

The Beta Israel would continue to face persecution in Ethiopia. They were so isolated from the Jewish world outside of Ethiopia that they believed they were the last Jewish community to still exist. Much of what the Ethiopian Jews practice is not only taken from Judaism but also from traditional practices within Ethiopia. They lived in rural lands close to water so they could use it for their rituals.

Life in Ethiopia was difficult for the Ethiopian Jews. A migration for the Beta Israel would occur. Many of the Beta Israel would flee to the neighboring country of Sudan. Such large numbers were heading to Sudan and causing problems at the refugee camps around the year of 1977, after the deposition of Selassie.  This was a dangerous journey which many did not survive.  Other groups of Beta Israel would migrate to Israel. As early as the late 1940’s they would migrate (or often were smuggled) into Israel.

On three separate occasions the Israeli government would successfully complete operations to rescue the Beta Israel from Ethiopia. The first was called Operation Moses.  In November of 1984, about 8,000 Ethiopian Jews whom had fled from Ethiopia to Sudanese refugee camps (thousands died on their way to Sudan) were airlifted to Israel. Operation Moses ended in January of 1985 as pressure from Arab countries was looming for Sudan to stop allowing the airlifts as the operation was brought to the attention of the media. Again in 1985 with the help of the US, another 800 were flown from Sudan to Israel in Operation Joshua. The last would occur in 1991, when Mengistu finally began allowing Ethiopian Jews to leave Ethiopia under the Law of Family Reunification. This would be called Operation Solomon. 14,324 Ethiopian Jews were rescued.

As of 2006, almost 79,000 Ethiopian Jews have made their way to Israel. Some of them arrived during the three operations of rescue, and others came during the late 1990’s. Those that arrived later did so under such laws as, the Law of Return (this is an Israeli law that will allow Jews and those with Jewish parents, grandparents, spouses – to settle in Israel and get citizenship) and under the context of family reunification. After Operation Solomon, not all Ethiopian Jews were able to leave Ethiopia. The Falash Mura are the Ethiopian Jews that had previously been forced to convert to Christianity, though many had never given up their Jewish faith. The Quara (Kwara) Jews were also left behind during Operation Solomon due to their inability to travel to pick up points because of the dangerous travel at the time. The Israeli government in 1999 allowed most of the Quara Jews to come to Israel. Around 1, 388 Quara Jews had made it successfully to Israel. Some were left in Ethiopia because of having to choose between a non-Jewish spouse or leaving the country.

Once Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel, things did not get easier for them. In order to help the Ethiopian Jews become familiar with their new home, they were put into absorption centers where they would learn Hebrew and learn to live in a modern, industrialized society. Many of them had come from rural, subsistence living conditions. There were conflicting feelings about allowing Ethiopian Jews to migrate to Israel and become citizens. Not only would they need to find a place to live, but jobs, schools, and money. Many Ethiopian Jews, who live in Israel, live in poverty and are illiterate, are struggling to send their children to school and are living in distressed neighborhoods with crime on the rise. Ethiopian Jews that are employed are mainly working in the industrial sector.


Go to: and use the data given there to plot a line graph of the years and the numbers of Ethiopian Jews that migrated to Israel. Compare it to dates in Ethiopian history and see what may have been the cause of mass migrations at certain periods of time for the Beta Israel.

Celebrations of Ethiopian Jews – Ethiopian Jews living in Israel observe many of the traditional Jewish holidays but have some celebrations that are traditional to Ethiopia.
Sigd – comes seven weeks after Yom Kippur in mid-November. The celebration began in Ethiopia where they expressed their yearning for Zion, now that they live in Israel it continues as an expression of their thankfulness.

There are over 1 million Rastafarians worldwide. Rastafarians are part of a movement that began in Jamaica around the year of 1930. Though it is not practiced by many in Ethiopia (even Haile Selassie did not believe in Rastafarianism – he was a Christian) it has some roots there. A vision of Marcus Garvey (a Jamaican who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association) influenced the beginnings of Rastafarianism. His vision for black workers was to “look to Africa for the crowning of a king to know your redemption is nigh” . When Haile Selassie I (formerly known as Tafari Makonnen) became emperor of Ethiopia many blacks saw this as Garvey’s vision being fulfilled. The movement became known as Rastafarianism (Rasta meaning prince and Tafari being the emperor’s name).

The movement that began was based on the belief that a black human incarnation of god was on earth. This god – “Jah” is whom they believe to be Haile Selassie I.  The movement builds a foundation upon the importance of African heritage and freedom from slavery and oppression. The Rastafarian movement has its’ own doctrines, diets, politics, language, ceremonies, symbols, history, and music. Much of the Rastafarian movement has been spread through Reggae music. Rastafarian musicians such as Bob Marley have helped extend the movement internationally. For an activity on Bob Marley, Rastafarianism, and Haile Selassie see Activity 2: Ethiopian History.

Ethiopia has a community of Rastafarians in Shashamene. It is the largest group of Rastafarians in Ethiopia. They first began migrating into Ethiopia in 1963 under the invitation of Haile Selassie I. Now there are over 200 families. Rastafarians reside elsewhere – Jamaica, United States, Great Britain, South Africa, Zimbabwe, etc.

Marcus Garvey
Marcus Garvey
Haile Selassie I
Haile Selassie I
Bob Marley
Bob Marley

Celebrations of Rastafarians (this is a list of a few of the Rastafarian celebrations) Coronation Day –Celebration of the day of Haile Selassie I's coronation Grounation Day – Celebration of Haile Selassie I's visit to Jamaica in 1966

Other religions of Ethiopia
Ethiopia is home to many different types of religion beyond the ones given above. Many traditional religious beliefs are practiced in Ethiopia. Many of the traditional religions believe, like elsewhere in Africa, in the central role of ancestral spirits (See Module 14, Religion in Africa, Activity Two).

For more information and media clips on religion in Ethiopia or in Africa visit the BBC website: