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Emperor Zar’a Ya’eqob (1434-68) And The Christianization Of Medieval Ethiopia

Christianity EthiopiaChristianity has had a long history in Ethiopia, with a tradition dating back to the first century AD, and becoming the state religion in the year 330. Throughout the Middle Ages this religion developed its own unique and unusual elements. One of the most important figures in Ethiopian Christianity was the 15th century Emperor Zar’a Ya’eqob.

He was the topic of a special lecture given by Steven Kaplan at the University of Toronto last week. Kaplan, Professor of African Studies and Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, talked about some of the major reforms and changes Emperor Zar’a Ya’eqob established during his reign, and how he “had an uncanny sense of making Christianity as part of the daily lives of Ethiopians.”

Christianity was long established among the Ethiopian monarchy and elites (however, it is difficult to know how important it was among the peasantry), and by the 12th century the country’s rulers were claiming to be the descendants of the Biblical figures Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. These kings were also very powerful figures in the Ethiopian church, in large part because the official head of the church was a foreigner – until the 20th century, the common practice was that a Coptic monk from Egypt would be sent to oversee a religious community made up of regional monastic houses and a clergy that usually had low levels of education.

Zar’a Ya’eqob was the youngest son of Dawit II (1380-1412) and it was never expected that he would see the Ethiopian throne. While he was receiving a monastic education, several other family members had short reigns, until 1434 when Zar’a became king. Up to this point, he had been mainly known for writing five books about Christianity, namely The Book of Light, The Book of the Nativity, The Epistle of Humanity, The Book of the Trinity and God Rules.  Kaplan finds that other scholars have overemphasized the importance of his theological works, whereas he believes that Zar’a Ya’eqob’s most important contributions to the Ethiopian Christianity relate to some of the practical changes he made during his reign.

One of the first issues Zar’a had to deal with was a dispute known as the Sabbath Schism. Monks in northern Ethiopia held that both Saturday and Sunday were the Sabbath, and had a long list of prohibitions of what could not be done on either day. Meanwhile, the monks and religious community in the south (and the Egyptian head of the church) only believed that Sunday was the Sabbath. While previous emperors tried (without success) to arrange for a compromise between these two factions, Zar’a Ya’eqob unilaterally declared the two-day Sabbath to be the official position of the church and ordered priests to work on both Saturdays and Sundays.

The Ethiopian Emperor was also instrumental in transforming the religious calendar by adding in many new holy days, including monthly festivals to celebrate the feasts of Mika’el (St.Michael) and Ledat (Christmas). He even began a new festival known as Masqal, which would take place in September at the end of the rainy season. This holiday, which typically lasted six or seven days, was meant commemorate the Finding of the True Cross, a piece of which had been supposedly given to his father Dawit II. While large pyres were built for bonfires, the emperor would typically use this time to handle much of the royal business, such as making and renewing appointments to government offices.

Zar’a Ya’eqob was also instrumental in supporting increased devotion to the Virgin Mary – he introduced 32 holidays commemorating Mary into the church calendar, and gave out patronage to artists so they could create images of her. Zar’a even wore a small image of Mary around his neck. These and other reforms were not universally appreciated by the Ethiopian church – some monks complained that by making so many holidays it was devaluing their importance, while others objected that Emperor was making these change on his own without much consultation. Some even pointed out that creating a lot of feast days and holidays were only superficial changes to religion, whereas it was more important to teach people to be good Christians. However, Zar’a Ya’eqob was also known as an authoritarian ruler, who took control of church councils and delegated power only to his own daughters – a trait that carried over into his political dealings. Throughout his reign he was able to impose his view of how Christianity should be practiced.

Virgin Mary Ethiopia - photo by A. Davey

Zar’a Ya’eqob would go on to rule his country for more than 30 years, and was even recognized in Europe as the legendary king Prester John. Kaplan believes the changes he brought to Christian religion – focusing on pan-Christian elements such as festivals and emphasizing the visual impact of the Cult of the Virgin Mary – had great importance in gaining wider acceptance of Christianity among the peasantry of Ethiopia.

Steven Kaplan has been with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem since 1984 and is considered one of the world’s leading experts in Ethiopian Judaism. Click here to read his C.V.



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