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Ethiopian strangers

01 May 2015

These churches are unfamiliar to most of us, says John Binns

Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia: A guide to the remote churches of an ancient land
María-José Friedlander and Bob Friedlander
I. B. Tauris £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

ETHIOPIA is one of the great centres of world Christianity. Its Church was founded in the fourth century, when its king was converted and thus made his country into one of the first Christian kingdoms. Since then, it has tenaciously guarded its Christian identity, in spite of a location surrounded by Islamic rule. Today, about 60 million of its inhabitants are Christian, and some projections suggest that its Orthodox Church will be the largest national Orthodox Church in the world by 2050.

Some of the churches are well known, and firmly on the tourist trail, such as the rock churches of Lalibela or the monasteries of Lake Tana. Some of the well-known churches are included in this guide, with descriptions of Debre Birhan Selassie with its angel roof, and Yemrehanna Christos, within reach of Lalibela. But, for most of the book, the author avoids the familiar places and instead takes us off the beaten track to some of the more inaccessible rock-hewn churches, requiring an arduous climb, or a lengthy boat trip to distant islands.

She describes her visits with anecdotes about how she got there, and her wonder at what she saw when she did. The paintings are carefully described, with plans showing the arrangement of the pictures on the walls, and many coloured plates showing the spectacular settings of the churches and the rich painting in the in- terior.

The commentary gives extracts from Ethiopian tradition, with passages from the lives of the saints or events taken from apocryphal gospels. We meet the colourful heroes of Ethiopian faith - the cannibal Belay, who eats 78 unwary travellers, and yet is granted salvation because of a single glass of water given to beggar; the saint who prayed so long, standing on one leg, that his leg atrophied and fell off. While Ethiopianists have analysed the hagiographic texts, here the stories are presented without critical comment. This has the advantage that it helps the reader enter the rich and dramatic world of the Amhara Christian, and get a sense of what this branch of Christian faith is like.

There is also an introductory history of the Church, and a description of the distinctive style of church architecture and worship. These give a sense of how the tradition of faith was formed.

It is a large and sumptuously produced book. For those who have visited Ethiopia, it will provide nostalgic reminders of what they saw, and show them other places that they did not have time to visit; and those who have not been will be encouraged to see for themselves. It is also a vivid invitation to encounter one of the great, but often overlooked, traditions of world Christianity.

The Revd Dr John Binns is Vicar of Great St Mary's, Cambridge, and an Hon. Canon of Ely Cathedral.

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