Source of Article
By JUDY SCHRAFFT Special to the Daily News
Updated: 3:33 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 24, 2011
This is where it all began.
In the second century A.D., two young men from Syria landed on the western shore of the Red Sea with a message that would change the world.
They brought the new religion of Christianity to the city now known as Axum, which became the religious center in the country known today as Ethiopia. The prevailing Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Church is one branch of the original Coptic church, which today includes the Egyptian, Armenian and several other living Coptic entities. This quickly spread theology that predated the Byzantine Empire — brought by Roman Emperor Constantine to what is now Istanbul — by about 200 years; it is as alive and powerful now as then.
The Axumite kingdom was one of the ancient world’s great civilizations, with monolithic stone stelae — obelisks in the style of multi-story buildings. One obelisk, stolen during the Mussolini occupation and taken to Italy, was recently returned and repositioned to mark the subterranean tombs of Axumite royals.
The son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon is said to have brought the Ark of the Covenant, containing the first books of the Old Testament, to Axum. It remains there today, preserved in a sanctuary that also houses gold and silver crosses used in holy ceremonies.
Religion pervades daily life in Ethiopia, which is sprinkled with churches in odd and obscure corners, forest groves, mountain tops, villages and towns. A call to prayer is heard several times a day; it is the Christian Orthodox call to Mass — in the original language of Ge’ez. While not spoken now, it is still used in all ancient religious ceremonies. The spoken language of Ethiopia is Amharic, although about 50 others can be heard.
Lalibela churches a marvel
In the northern highlands below the Sudan border, more than 200 rock-hewn churches are chiseled and carved, lovingly and painfully, from the living bedrock. This is where the famous rock churches of Lalibela were ordered by King Lalibela in the 12th century. They represent a marvel of man’s labors. Most are excavated on four sides, with tortuous deep and steep underground paths connecting them. All are underground and must be entered barefoot via steep stone steps. Some are still attached to the rock matrix by one wall, and some are in mountain caves. They display elaborate and colorful decorations painted on the rock walls of the Holy Trinity, saints, winged angels and Bible tales, all peopled with sweet wide-eyed faces of early and contemporary Ethiopians.
Monasteries in odd settings — such as small inaccessible islands in Lake Tana — are likewise adorned with the same icons and panel paintings; they still house yellow-robed monks who conduct daily services.
As a large part of Ethiopian life, religion may be responsible for the country’s almost nonexistent crime rate. Muslim and Jewish populations also occupy their niches, and Ethiopia’s past troubles all result from territorial rather than religious strife.
But life was not always so peaceful here.
Foreigners create, dominate
Once a part of the area known as Abyssinia — including Sudan, Egypt, Eritrea and Somalia — Ethiopia was formed more than 100 years ago when the British drew arbitrary lines. It was the only country that wasn’t colonized, until the brutal Italian invasion by Benito Mussolini in 1935 during the reign of beloved Emperor Haile Selassie. Since 1885, Italy had controlled neighboring Eritrea, long enough to have built in Asmara, its ancient capital, a concentration of Art Deco homes, official buildings, post offices and fascist monuments in the same style as Italy’s other African colony, Libya — especially its seaside capital of Tripoli.
Italy’s quest for territory spilled into Ethiopia when its bloody takeover on May 5, 1936, drove the emperor to England, killed thousands of his loyal troops and supporters, and — in a symbolic move — even shot the emperor’s beloved lions, which shared his palace grounds. This occupation only lasted until Italy’s 1941 involvement in World War II; its presence was abruptly curtailed and British troops occupied Ethiopia’s 8,000-foot-high capital of Addis Ababa.