Christianity in Tigray
- Tigray is the reason why Ethiopia is considered one of the oldest Christian countries in the world.
- The church is a central feature of Tigrayan communities and of each family’s daily life. Each community has a church with a patron saint.
- The historical landscape of Tigray is heavily influenced by Christianity; evident from its ancient structures, artifacts, festivals, stories, clothing and much more.
- According to the 2007 census, approximately 96% of the population of Tigray hold Christianity as their primary religion: 99.5% are Orthodox,0.088% are Protestant, and 0.38%are Roman Catholic.
History and Introduction of Christianity in Tigray
- One major aspect of Tigrayan history, woven into the region’s socio-economic fabric of past and present, is its rich and ancient Christian history.
- Prior to Christianity, the Aksumite Kingdom (which had its capital, Aksum, in present-day Tigray) was mentioned in the Old Testament numerous times.
- 1 Kings 10:1-13 recounts the story of Queen Sheba, queen of the Sabeans which covers the realm of Aksum. Legend goes that King Solomon fathered a child with Queen Sheba–Menelik I–and gifted him the Ark of the Covenant. To this day, many in Tigray believe that the Ark of the Covenant is housed in the cathedral of Maryam Tsion (Mary of Zion).
- “ […] One of the earliest translations of the Bible was in Geez, a Semitic language, which is still used in Eritrean and Ethiopian liturgies. While not part of the biblical canon, the book of Enoch is only wholly extant in the Ge’ez language.” — Semere T. Habtemariam, Two Slave Brothers Birthed Africa’s Oldest State Church.
- Christianity was introduced prior to the 4th century A.D. and as early as the1st century A.D. during the Aksumite Empire.
- Oral and written tradition give light to figures in the Bible such as the early church fathers, Mark, Matthew and Thomas, who preached the gospel to the people of Abyssinia (current day Ethiopia and Eritrea) as early as the 1stcentury.
How Christianity Became Tigray’s Predominant Religion
- The adoption of Christianity occurred during the reign of Emperor Ezana, in the 4th century A.D, ruler of the ancient Aksumite Kingdom.
- Emperor Ezana’s conversion to Christianity has been reconstructed in the religious histories of Rufinus and Socrates Scholasticus.
- Ecclesiastical documents of both historians recount the introduction of Christianity to the Aksumite Kingdom by the phoenician slave Frumentius and his brother Aedesius.
- How Christianity Became Tigray’s Predominant Religion
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- Both held prominent positions within the King’s chamber and are credited for introducing Christianity to the soon to be Emperor Ezana and his brother Se’azana.
- Christianity had existed in the Aksumite Empire prior to the birth of Tigrayan Emperor Ezana. The message of the gospel was preached in the Aksumite Kingdom by missionaries, however, it was adopted as the official religion of the empire after Emperor Ezana’s conversion.
- The evangelistic (Christian missionary) movement of Frumentius is detailed in his hagiography, Gedle Abba Selema.
Spread and Success of Christianity in Tigray and Larger Aksumite Kingdom
- In the book Pillars in Ethiopian History, British officer Francis B. Head is quoted recounting the spread of Christianity in Abyssinia in these words:
“Never did the seed of Christian religion find more genial soil than when it first fell among the rugged mountains of Abyssinia […] no war to introduce it, no fanatic priesthood to oppose it, no bloodshed to disgrace it; its only argument was its truth […] and around our religion, thus shining in its native luster, men flocked in peaceful humility, […] joined cheerfully in doctrines which gave glory to God in the Highest […]”
- The unhindered spread of the gospel in the Aksumite Kingdom proves as a stark contrast to the Greco-Roman world where Christianity was perceived as a threat to society and its followers persecuted. This was the case because Aksumite Emperor Ezana and his brother were raised in the faith and adopted Christianity as the nation’s religion.
- In addition, the Aksumite Kingdom, benefiting from its proximity to the Red Sea, was located along major international trade routes between India and the Roman Empire. The adoption of Christianity allowed for the solidification of the Aksumite Kingdom’s trading relationship with Rome.
Christian Architecture and Artifacts
- Many Tigrayan churches were cut into cliffs or from single blocks of stone, as they were in Turkey and in parts of Greece, where Christianity existed from its earliest years.
- During an excavation of Aksumite ruins in Beta Samati (ancient settlement),an ancient basilica was discovered at 60 feet high and 40 feet wide. Among the ancient ruins discovered was a black stone pendant inscribed with the cross and the word “venerable” in Ge’ez script. In addition, one of the basilica’s walls had the request “for Christ [to be] favorable to us,” inscribed into it.
- Another ancient discovery is the Abba Garima Gospels – from the Endā AbbāGarimā Monastery, Tigray.
- The Abba Garima Gospels, the first illuminated gospel books in history, is written in the ancient language of Ge’ez.
- Production of the illuminated gospels in Tigray has been dated as far back as 330 and 650 CE through radiocarbon dating.
- The cathedral of Maryam Tsion (Mary of Zion) is the holiest of worship places in all of Tigray and famed to have the Ark of the Covenant within its walls.
- There are several ancient rock-hewn churches in Tigray:
- Gheralta cluster churches: Maryam and Daniel Korkor, Abuna Yemata Guh
- Mikael Imba (Atsbi cluster), Medhane Alem Adi Kasho and Petros We Paulos (Teka Tesfai cluster) and Abreha We Atsbeha (Wukro cluster)
Christian Architecture and Artifacts Continued
- Tigray is home to a vast array of churches ranging in structure, color and material including churches cut deep into the mountains of Tigray.
- Cherkos church in Zalambesa, believed to be carved in the 4th century
- Buried Aksum Christian Basilica, believed to be built in the 4th century
- The rock-cut church of Maryam Dengelat, The unattainable church believed to be cut in the 6th century
- Debre Damo, built in the 6th century
- Degum Selassie, dated between the 7th and10th century
- Cherkos Wukro, rock hewn church, built in the 8th century
- Abreha-We-Atsbeha, built in the 10th century
- Debre Abune Abraham Tsion church, built in the 14th century
- Monastery of May Wäyni, dated between the late 14th and early 15th century
Christian Influence in Tigray
- A large percentage of Tigrayans partake in Tsom for lent. Tsom is the practice of abstaining from meat, dairy and eggs. During this time, restaurants serve food options that adhere to Tsom dietary restrictions.
- Major regional festivals celebrated in Tigray are linked to Christian holidays. These holidays include:
- Timket: the Epiphany of Christ
- Meskel: the Finding of the True Cross
- Ledet (Christmas): the celebration of the birth of Christ
- Fasiga (Easter): the celebration of the resurrection of Christ
- Much of Tigrayan traditional dress have crosses meticulously stitched into them with an array of colors.
Christian History in Jeopardy
- Since the beginning of the genocidal campaign waged on Tigrayan civilians on November 4, 2020, ancient and sacred structures with rich historical significance have been bombed and looted and worshippers indiscriminately killed.
- On November 28, 2020, Eritrean troops stormed the sacred church Saint Maryam Tsion in Aksum and opened fire on hundreds of worshippers, killing hundreds during the rampage.
- Eritrean troops bombed and looted Cherkos church in Zalambesa.
- They also bombed Debre Damo church and Saint George church in Tigray’s capital city, Mekelle.
- The atrocities being committed on Tigrayans and sacred worship places during the genocidal war in Tigray must stop.
- The international community should demand:
- the immediate cessation of hostilities;
- the return of all looted religious artifacts;
- the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray;
- the unfettered access of humanitarian aid in all areas in Tigray; and
- that the Ethiopian government hold an all-inclusive national dialogue.