Religion is instrumental to everyday life in Ethiopia, as it has been for centuries. Priests and deacons abound in their often colourful robes, carrying their staffs and ornate crosses that people frequently kiss as they pass. Ethiopian languages are full of references to God, and the calendar’s days of interest are determined largely by religion.

On the central plateau, the Ethiopian Orthodox church holds sway, as it has done since the 4th century when Ethiopia became the first state to adopt Christianity. The Orthodox Church has many connections with ancient Judaism. Fasting and detailed food restrictions, the specific ways of slaughtering animals, the layout of the churches and the practice of circumcision all make for a very particular religious culture.


Indeed, Ethiopia had large communities of ‘falashas’, Ethiopian Jews, especially in the Gondar region in the north, who have played an important role in the history of Ethiopia, especially in the earlier years. Most of these however have now departed to live in Israel, having been airlifted out of the country with Operation Solomon and Operation Moses in the latter part of the 20th century.

Islam is the second largest religion in Ethiopia with roughly one third of the population as followers. Although certain regions are predominantly either Islam or Christian, Muslims generally live peaceably alongside Christians throughout the country, though this was not always the case. The south and east are where most Muslims reside – 99% of the people of Somali are Muslim – and the city of Harar, in the east of the country, is officially the fourth most holy Muslim site in the world.

In the lowland areas, animistic and pagan religions are still commonly found among tribal people who live in simple, traditional communities.

Ethiopian Orthodox

Ethiopian tradition has it that Christianity came to the country at the beginning of the 4th century AD. A boat sailing from Tyre to Ethiopia stopped at a Red Sea port where the locals massacred all the men on board except for two brothers, Fromentius and Edesius. It was to be these two brothers, who were taken to Axum as slaves, who would gain favour in the court and eventually convert the King, Ezena to Christianity. Fromentius took the lead role and became the first Bishop of Ethiopia.



It is therefore said that Ethiopia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its official state religion. It has retained many points of similarity with the Coptic church of Egypt. Indeed, until 1959, the Abuna or patriarch was appointed from Alexandria. Now the Church has its own patriarch. Ethiopian orthodoxy also displays many similarities to ancient Judaism, in its fasting rules, in the way in which animals are slaughtered and in the layout of its churches amongst other features. Wednesday and Friday are days of fasting when no animal products may be consumed. There are 55 days of fasting prior to Fasika, the Orthodox Easter. Circumcision is practised on all boys. Church services on Sundays are long and start at the crack of dawn.

Festivals in Ethiopia are an important part of daily life. The most significant is Ethiopian Epiphany, or Timkat, while Meskel (the finding of the true cross), Easter, Christmas (celebrated on the 7th January) and various other smaller days are also celebrated.
Roughly 45% of the population follow the Orthodox religion. Protestants and Catholics take the total number of Christians to around 62% of the population.
A fascinating book that will inform the reader in much more detail of these Ethiopian Orthodox traditions is the Kebre Negast, the Glory of Kings, written in the 13th century, which is available in several translated editions. Here one may read of the association between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and of the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia (see Axum in the Traveller’s Guide).

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Islam came to Ethiopia in very early times. Mohammed himself was said to have sent followers to Ethiopia in 615 AD, and they received a warm welcome. As Axum’s Christian strength waned later in that century, Islam began to have a more meaningful influence across the country.

The 16th century was to see disastrous conflict between Christendom and Islam in Ethiopia. Of particular note was the powerful invasion led by Mohammed Gragn (the Left-Handed) in an attempt to conquer the entire country. This force was to be very successful in many areas of Ethiopia and was only eventually defeated with the help of the Portuguese led by Vasco da Gama’s son Christopher.

These days, the Islamic faith and Christianity seem to co-exist very peacefully in most areas. The high central plateau is predominantly Christian, while the lower surrounding areas to the east and south are more uniformly Muslim.

The holy city of Harar lies near the railway line to Djibouti in the east. It is officially the fourth most holy site in Islam and its architecture gives no doubt to its history and faith. Mosques abound within the city walls – 87 at the last count – and the colourful dresses of the women add to the exotic ambience of a memorable town.

Ethiopian Jews

The ‘Beta Israel’ – as the Jews of Ethiopia refer to themselves – have lived in Ethiopia for many centuries, but their origins are uncertain. Some hold to the tradition that they are descended from the lost tribe of Dan. The medieval Christian chronicle, the Kebra Negast, tells of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba having a son called Menelik, who grew up in Ethiopia but went to visit his father in the Land of Israel and returned home accompanied by a group of Israelite soldiers who settled in Ethiopia. Modern academics are also divided in their explanations: some think that Jewish tribes from the Arabian Desert migrated to Ethiopia, others have proposed that Jewish influence travelled down the Nile from Egypt.

The Beta Israel settled in the Northern part of Ethiopia, particularly in the Simien mountains, and around Lake Tana. There were periods when an independent Jewish kingdom held out against Christian emperors, but in the 15th century the Beta Israel were soundly defeated and from then on they became a lower-status minority in the Christian empire.


Synagogue in Wolleka, Northern Ethiopia

Most of the Beta Israel were brought to Israel in Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991), plus other smaller planned actions in the 1970’s and 80’s. But there remained many others who were ethnically Jewish, but who converted to Christianity at the end of the 19th century and through the first half of the twentieth century, due to physical and economic pressures. These are the Zera Israel.

The Zera Israel remained close to their Beta Israel relatives. They did not marry into the established Christian community until very recently, and continued to be defined (and define themselves) as Jews. A great many have returned to Jewish practices and wish to move to Israel. However, as their ancestors converted to Christianity, they are not eligible to come through the Law of Return.

A solution was reached where they would come to Israel under the Law of Entry (designed for non-Jews applying for Israeli citizenship), have a year in an absorption centre and learn Hebrew and also about mainstream Judaism. At the end of this year, they would undergo a token conversion and then receive Israeli citizenship. However, emigration was only offered to those Zera Israel who could prove Jewish descent through the mother – even though in Ethiopia Judaism traditionally passed down through the father. Over 5,000 of these patrilineal Jews who moved to Gondar Town in order to apply for emigration have been rejected.

Religious Festivals

The Ethiopians love to celebrate, whether it be important events in their history, major landmarks in the religious calendar or simply special family days. Best clothes are worn, food and drink are plentiful, musicians play and people dance and sing.

National holidays are held to celebrate the victory over the Italians at Adwa in 1896, the Liberation from the Italian occupation in 1941 and the downfall of the Derg in 1991.



The Ethiopians love to celebrate, whether it be important events in their history, major landmarks in the religious calendar or simply special family days. Best clothes are worn, food and drink are plentiful, musicians play and people dance and sing.

National holidays are held to celebrate the victory over the Italians at Adwa in 1896, the Liberation from the Italian occupation in 1941 and the downfall of the Derg in 1991.

It is the major Ethiopian Orthodox festivals however that represent the people at their most colourful and festive. Meskal is a two-day festival at the end of September celebrating the ‘Finding of the True Cross’. Bonfires are lit and singing and dancing take place around them, while the priests don their full ceremonial regalia.

The greatest Orthodox festival is that of Timkat in the middle of January. It celebrates Epiphany and it is marked by the procession of the tabots (the replicas of the Ark of the Covenant, the original of which is said to be in the chapel at Axum) around the towns, draped in heavy embroidered materials. People in Gondar bathe in Fasil’s Bath and splash water over onlookers.

Other religious festivals are at Fasika (Easter), Inketatash (the New Year in mid-September) and Genna (Christmas in early January). All the Islamic holidays are also celebrated according to the lunar cycle of shifting dates as in other countries.

Why Ethiopia?

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