Ethiopian Church History - 15th to 18th Century

ETHIOPIAN CHUCH HISTORY (15th – 18th Century) #


Written by Professor Tadesse Tamerat

After the reign of Zar’a Ya’iqob (1434-68) and his immediate successor Ba’ida-Maryam (1468-1478), the Orthodox Christian kingdom of Ethiopia had a series of minor kings who were too young to take the affairs of State in their own hands. This brought some of the more ambitious royal officials into temporary prominence as “guardians” of the Crown. These officials had numerous rivals for power, and the whole kingdom entered into a period of political conflicts and Civil War which lasted for about fifty years. The end result of this was the gradual weakening of the Christian army and the slackening of the frontier defense system. In the long struggle with the Muslim kingdom of Adal, this brought about a sudden change in the balance of power between the Orthodox Christianity and Islam.

The Wars of Ahmad Gragn #

With the Ottoman (present day Turkey) conquest of the Greek Byzantine Capital of Constantinople, the whole Near and Middle East, Islam was given a special impetus in the Red Sea area and in the African Horn. The Muslim communities of the Ethiopian region began to be more and more aggressive particularly in their relations with the Orthodox Christian Empire. Many Turkish and Arab mercenaries came over from across the Red Sea, better equipped with the superior arms of the Ottoman Empire. The Muslim invasion of the Ethiopian highlands in the beginning of the sixteenth century was thus a tremendous success. The leader of the Muslim forces during this conflict was Imam Ahmad Ibn Ibrahim or Gragn, as he is known in Ethiopian Chronicles. His Chronicle, entitled Futuh al-Habasha (meaning “The Conquest of the Abyssinians”), relates how the Muslim invasion was particularly aimed at destroying the Orthodox Church in the Ethiopian highlands. As the center of the mediaeval Christian culture of Ethiopia and as the place where the kings also kept their fabulous treasures, the Church was attacked by the Muslim forces with particular fury. Dazzled by the riches of the Churches and Monasteries, the Muslim troops burnt and looted for a period of about fifteen years, and almost completely destroyed the mediaeval heritage of Orthodox Christian Ethiopia. The following passage is a vivid description of how the island monastery of Hayq was sacked, and it characterizes the attitude of the Muslim army throughout the period of their success between 1531 and 1543:

“They carried off the gold… there were crucifixes of gold in great quantity, books with cases and bindings of gold, and countless statues of gold; each Muslim took 300 ounces; each man had sufficient gold plate to satisfy three men. They also took a vast quantity of cloth and silk… The next morning (the Muslim chief) sent the Imam three rafts loaded with gold, silver and silk; there were only five men on board, two in front and three at the back, the rest of the raft being covered with riches though it could have carried 150 persons. The cargo was unloaded in front of the Imam who marveled at it and forgot the treasure which he had seen before. The rafts returned to the island and were a second time loaded with riches. They came three times, on each occasion loaded; they then returned to the island and the men went on board to return to the mainland. On the following day Ahmad partitioned the spoil; he gave one part to the Arabs and … one to the troops who had gone on the water; the rest he divided among the Muslims”.

It was in this way that the material and spiritual heritage of Mediaeval Orthodox Ethiopia, like that of the Greek Byzantine Church, was destroyed during the wars with Islamic hordes. Many of the inhabitants in the Muslim-occupied areas were forced to renounce their Orthodox Christian faith and adopt Islam. Although some chose to die for their faith, the large majority of the Christian peasants acquiesced to at least a nominal acceptance of Islam.

The Dilemma in Ethiopian Relations with Europe #

The Ethiopian kingdom was later restored after the death of Ahmad Gragn (1543) and after the defeat of his army by Emperor Galawdewos (1540-59) who was given effective military assistance by the Kingdom of the Portuguese. Relations with the Portuguese had already started towards the end of the fifteenth century, and reciprocal envoys had been exchanged between Lisbon and the Ethiopian court. The Ethiopians were impressed by reports of the technical advances in Europe and wanted to share in this material civilization. From the earliest stages of their contacts with Europe the Ethiopians expressed their desire to receive European technicians and artisans, and the kings were especially interested in firearms. Already in the fifteenth century some isolated European adventures had reached Ethiopia even before the Portuguese, and they had been employed by the kings as masons, craftsmen, and amateur painters. When official relations were later initiated with the Portuguese, it was precisely their interest in the material civilization of Europe which preoccupied the minds of the Ethiopians. Emperor Libna-Dingil requested artists, builders, craftsmen, and men who could make guns for him. He also desired to establish a strong military alliance with the Portuguese. But outside these cultural and diplomatic contacts, a completely different interest preoccupied the Europeans. Thus, almost completely ignorant of the history and the spiritual heritage of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Portuguese sought to act as the agents of the Roman Catholic Church - Pope. This caused a lot of unnecessary bloodshed in the first part of the seventeenth century, and led to the final expulsion of the Jesuit mission by Emperor Fasiladas in 1632.

The Roman Catholic Religious Order Priests, “The Jesuit’s” experience was very bitter for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and it naturally led to the creation of very strong hostility towards anything European for a long period of time. During their short time in Ethiopia, the Jesuits had done a great deal of damage and they had seriously disturbed the spiritual stability of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Thus, immediately after the official expulsion of the Jesuit mission, there was a very long period of intensive doctrinal controversies within the Ethiopian Church which sadly, lasted for over two centuries. When these controversies are seen in the right historical perspective, it is very clear that they arose from the need to re-examine the doctrinal positions of the Ethiopian Church and to purify the Church from possible external influences still lingering even after the expulsion of the missionaries. The end result of all this was an intensive movement of literary and intellectual revival in the kingdom of Gondar. What is most impressive is that, despite the decline of the monarchy and the disintegration of the State into a number of regional entities during the so-called “Era of the Princes,” the Ethiopian Orthodox Church preserved its basic unity. And from the middle of the nineteenth century, when the monarchy started to revive once again, the Church resumed its historic role as the most important unifying factor in Christian Ethiopia.