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Ethiopia is a treasure trove of Christian history

An Orthodox priest in Lalibela, Ethiopia. Photo provided by Janet Tollund

About an hour north of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, is Axum, formerly called Abyssinia. Axum is the home of the fabled Ark of the Covenant, which supposedly holds the stone tablets on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments.

According to legend, the Queen of Sheba paid a visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem. On her return to Ethiopia she had born him a son, whom she named Menelik. When Menelik grew up, he visited his father in Jerusalem, and came home, bringing with him the Ark of the Covenant, which he had obtained by subterfuge.

The Ark ended up in Axum and is carefully guarded in the Treasury next to the Church of St. Mary of Zion. It cannot be seen by anyone but the High Priest; therefore, its authenticity has been contested by many.

A church at Lalibela, the Jerusalem of Ethiopia

While Axum lays its claim to fame with the Ark of the Covenant (and its ancient and impressive stele), most people marvel primarily at the incredible churches carved out of solid rock in the town of Lalibela, located between Axum and Addis and referred to by some as the Jerusalem of Ethiopia. Amidst this dusty town, one rock-hewn church after another — eleven in all — dot the dry landscape, each one staffed by a resident monk in a colorful brocade robe and carrying a ceremonial cross. The churches are very dark inside (with rooftops actually level to the ground). So when tourists enter carrying their cameras, the monks all don sunglasses to ward off the flash!

Other cities and areas attest to the importance of Christianity in Ethiopia’s history, such as Bahir Dar, with its 20 island monasteries in Lake Tana; and Gondar, where one can view the remnants of some 44 ancient churches.

Approximately 63 percent of the people of Ethiopia are Christian; the majority are Orthodox. There are also strong connections with the Lutheran Church and the Oromo region, in the southern part of the country. (The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, an ELCA congregation in Minneapolis, partners with the Oromo Christian communities.)

For those who have traveled to the Holy Land or Egypt and tread the footsteps of Paul, a religious pilgrimage to Ethiopia will not disappoint!

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