The first time I ever drove through the northern region of Ethiopia, it was as if I had opened the Bible to the Old Testament pages. I watched out the car window as we passed by farmers donning white wraps on their heads, balancing long-worn sticks on their shoulders. Young boys tended sheep grazing on rocky hillsides. Homes and low walls made from hand-chiseled sandstone. The backdrop to all of this was mountains and cliff faces that resembled parts of Utah. The culture felt rich, ancient, simple.
I’ve since moved to this beautiful country, and as I rooted myself into Ethiopian culture, I discovered it not only looks like how I imagine Old Testament times, but that God has always sought out Ethiopians, starting with the old covenant.
Descendants of Ham, Ethiopians traditionally embraced the widespread practice of polytheism. Yet what Ham had neglected to do in the transmission of his father Noah’s faith, God would do through a queen and king in tenth century BC.
The Queen of Sheba, who was the queen of the Aksumite Kingdom (modern-day Ethiopia), went to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem. We read about this encounter in 1 Kings 10, “When the Queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relationship to the Lord, she came to test Solomon with hard questions” (NIV). Throughout the chapter it becomes evident that the queen was impressed by what she saw, and the Ethiopian history books pick up the story where the writer of 1 Kings leaves off. Ethiopian tradition tells how the Queen of Sheba bore King Solomon a son named Menelik. Their son, who ruled Ethiopia at the beginning of the Golden Age of the Solomonic Dynasty, was instrumental in bringing Judaism back to Ethiopia, where it was widely practiced for centuries.
In the first century AD, Philip the evangelist stumbles upon a chariot carrying an Ethiopian eunuch. The account in Acts 8 tells us that Philip explained to the eunuch the text that he was reading from Isaiah, about the good news of the Messiah. The eunuch believed the gospel, was baptized, and is said to have brought his new faith back to Ethiopia. During this same period there are accounts that Matthew, one of the twelve disciples, was charged with preaching the gospel message in modern-day Ethiopia.
The church grew, and the Aksumite Kingdom eventually adopted Christianity as the official religion in the fourth century AD when Saint Frumentius, the first bishop to Ethiopia, converted King Ezana.
A century later, nine Coptic Saints were instrumental in the growth of Christianity throughout the region. Each saint took a different geographical region of what is now northern Ethiopia, with the commission to found churches in those areas. These churches, which are still in use to this day, have become part of the rich fabric of the living religious history.
Most of these ancient churches are located at the top of a mountain and carved directly into the side of the rock. Many date back to the time of the saints in the fifth century. One of my favorite churches in the Gheralta region is Abuna Yemata Guh. This church, and others like it, is ancient, but it’s still living and active, its priests studying every word of their goat-skinned Bibles.
The Ethiopians who live at the foot of the mountain of Abuna Yemata Guh attend church there on a regular basis. They take their babies up the mountain to be baptized. They carry their dead up there to be buried. On Easter, they climb the steep face of the mountain in the darkness of night, guided by the light of the moon, for a service that lasts until morning. This is not a tourist attraction for them—this is their home church, where they were born and where they will die.
There are obvious similarities in the way ancient Judaism and the modern Ethiopian Orthodox Church practice their faith. Even though the Ethiopian Orthodox Church recognizes the Jesus’s death on the cross, that message has not permeated a works-based society that seeks God’s favor through Old Testament’s laws and traditions. Ethiopians don’t eat pork, and they fast for over 150 days a year. They rest on the Sabbath. There are still Holy of Holies in their churches, which are protected by a curtain that only the priests can enter. Ethiopian Orthodox adherents believe they have access to God through their priest, rather than simply through the “one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5 NIV).
Yet these churches stand as a reminder of God’s faithfulness to his people. And the fact that these churches are still living and active point to generations of Ethiopians that have been faithful to God even through war, poverty, and famine. And though some have yet to embrace many aspects of full faith, there is something to learn from the simple, unquestioning devotion the people of this region have to God. They go to such extreme measures to simply believe, to fast, pray, and worship God.
Visiting these churches and living in this culture has given the new covenant of the cross a deeper meaning for me, in light of old covenant traditions. Salvation is a beautiful message, and there are centuries of people that believed in this, and who rooted their lives in the message of the Messiah, but who never actually witnessed his coming. Their faith—in what they could not see—is part of why I am standing here today in this ancient church, soaking up the significance of my own salvation.