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Ethiopia: guardian of the Ark

Photo Credit: Ethiopian Tourism Organization


by Agnes Chung

A few summers ago, I attended the African festival at Burnaby’s Swangard Stadium.  I am no coffee drinker, but the fragrance of roasting coffee beans with burning incense emanating from the Ethiopian stand piqued my interest.

It ignited my fascination with Ethiopia, where the Ark of the Covenant is claimed to be kept.  Ethiopia is not a place that comes to mind quickly when I think of the Christian faith.  Yet, Christian beliefs are woven into the fabric of daily Ethiopian life.

Ethiopia in the Bible 

In ancient times, Ethiopia is known to Greeks and Romans as AEthiopia, and to the Hebrews as Cush. King James version  of the Bible had 54 mentions of the names, Ethiopia and Cush in 16 Old Testament books. Ethiopia is quoted once in the New Testament book of Acts.

The first reference to Ethiopia is in Genesis 2:13 where Gihon is described as the river which entirely surrounds Ethiopia.  Gihon is the second of the four tributaries that connects to the main river flowing out of Eden to water the garden.

Tide of hope

Ethiopia was at one time a rich and powerful kingdom. Natural disasters and human failures threw the country into desperation and destitution. But the tide of hope is coming. In 2017, Ethiopia’s economy surpassed that of Kenya to become East Africa’s economic giant.

The country is making strides in tackling poverty and improving economic conditions with the poverty rate dropping from 44% in 2000 to 23.5% in 2015-16, reported the International Monetary Fund. Its award-winning national carrier, Ethiopia Airlines is now Africa’s largest airline.

Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christians are among the world’s earliest Christian communities. Their history dates back to fourth century AD when Aksumite King Ezana converted to Christianity. The community has endowed the country with sacred sites and thousands of churches. One of them is purportedly the resting site of the Ark.

The Ark connection

The Ark of the Covenant’s whereabouts remain a mystery since it vanished from the first temple in Jerusalem when the Babylonians plundered Jerusalem in 586 B.C.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims to possess the Ark which is currently held in St. Mary of Zion cathedral in Aksum, Tigray. Legend has it that Menelik I, who lived in Ethiopia, brought the Ark from Jerusalem to Axum when he visited his father on reaching adulthood. Menelik I is the son of King Solomon and Makeda, Queen of Sheba.

The Ark’s authenticity was never studied as no one other than the monk guarding the Ark, known as the “Guardian of the Ark” is allowed to see the sacred object.

God had commanded Moses to build the Ark to hold the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. The ornate, gold-plated wooden chest has two winged cherubim on the lid. Exodus 25 provides a detailed description of the Ark.

Faith built upon rock

Lalibela is Ethiopia’s second holiest city after Aksum. This UNESCO World Heritage city features Christian history etched in volcanic rocks. Spectacular monolithic rock-hewn churches and circular-shaped dwellings dot the Ethiopian Highlands.

King Lalibela ordered the churches’ construction after Muslim conquests barred Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the 12th century. The 11 medieval cave churches represent the New Jerusalem.  Lalibela is about 645 kilometres from the country’s capital, Addis Ababa.

Like the Lalibela stone churches, the Orthodox Christian community’s faith is built on rock. Despite poverty, ethnic and civil conflicts, their faith remains resilient over the centuries.

Easter more important than Christmas

In the Old Testament, the Ark embodies God’s presence among His people. The space between the cherubim is referred to as the mercy seat. Annually, a priest would sprinkle sacrificed animal blood on the mercy seat to atone for the sins of Israel.

This is no longer necessary.  Jesus Christ is the mediator of a new covenant… (Hebrews 9:15). Christ’s death on the cross and the shedding of His blood atones for man’s sin.

In Orthodox theology, Christ’s death and resurrection is more significant than his birth. This explains why Easter (or Fasika in Ethiopian) is a more prominent occasion than Christmas.

Fasika is observed a week or two after the Western Church’s Easter. An eight-week meatless and animal-product-free fast culminates to a Saturday evening prayer and worship service that ends at 3 a.m. on Easter Sunday.  The break of fast follows with the celebration of the risen Christ.

It’s a reunion time for families and friends. Doro Wat (spicy chicken stew) is a traditional Easter dish served with Injera (Teff flatbread).  There’s also the large-round Difo Dabo wheat bread and Beg Wot (spicy lamb stew). No Ethiopian occasion is complete without the traditional coffee ceremony.

The ritual of roasting coffee with burning incense spurs warmth and friendship in a culture rooted in Christian community.

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