A fossilized museum-piece or a living legend

A fossilized museum-piece or a living legend?

The Reporter (Addis Ababa), March 28, 2000

by Gezahegn Getachew


Addis Ababa - A grand exhibition is on view at the Addis Ababa Exhibition Center this week on the heritage of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC). Entitled "The Ethiopian Orthodox Church: Past, Present and Future," the event, organized by Mhibere Kidusan (under the EOC's Sunday School Department), will come to a close at the end of the week.


Opening the exhibition last Saturday, His Holiness Abune Paulos, Patriarch of the EOC, made a brief address emphasizing the role of our ancestors in protecting and preserving the Church's heritage over the past 2000 years. He also spoke on the need for the present generation to actively do the same thing. His holiness then appreciated the government's contribution in this respect and recommended that it work in collaboration with the church to protect and preserve the heritage, including campaigning for the restitution of the looted Ethiopian relics of antiquity.


Ato Wolde Michael Chamo, the Minster of Culture and Information, also made a speech during the opening ceremony. ''The EOC has played a significant role in preserving and handing down our heritage that is the manifestation of our Ethiopian identity and the footprint of our history," he declared. "The Church should pursue this worthy endeavour with renewed vigor and eergy." Deacon Belachew, the chairperson of Mahibere Kidusan, had also something to say regarding the exhibition.


The event is unique in two aspects. The first is that national interest to protect and preserve the heritage of the EOC was kindled. The significance of this with regard to creating public awareness and calling on the society to resist the threat of a decline and fall of the heritage cannot be ignored. Secondly, the institutions and individuals responsible for the organization of the exhibition are young persons, who, apparently, have wholeheartedly accepted the Church's faith, order and tradition. These individuals at Mahibere Kidusan are endeavoring to protect the heritage through teaching and by assuming the responsibility of handing them down to succeeding gnerations.


A fascinating collection of exhibits ranging from ancient manuscripts to ecclesiastical materials (originals and replicas) were displayed at the exhibition under nine categories. These are the history of the EOC, places of historic churches, ecclesiastic materials, Christian Manuscripts, Art, Hymns and Christian Musical instruments, looted and damaged heritage, the EOC in the future, and the history of Mahibere Kidusan. The items are also displayed through photographs and charts, while the paintings on show include not only those that are now found in Ethiopia, but also those of looted items now found in the museums of western countries. About 4000 looted manuscripts have been listed.


Anyone who visits the exhibition would certainly wonder about the secret of the longevity of the Church and would get the answer from the displays. Every individual church in the remotest corner of the country is a museum that demands protection and preservation. But the EOC cannot collect in a museum all the heritage of the churches. This is because the heritage consists of not just relics and fossils. They are living spiritual and material heritages at the service of the churches. There are also sacred poems composed at least for most days of the week and by most churches.


The exhibition is supplemented by a workshop that commences today and would close on Saturday. Nine papers will be presented under the topics of music, architecture, art, protection of heritage and literature of the EOC.


But why do most foreign scholars and tourists consider the Church as a fossilized institution? The exhibition clearly indicated hat Ethiopia is a living legend for the world. The EOC, with more than 36 million followers, has 30,000 monasteries and churches and 400,000 clerics who perform various religious services. All the heritage displayed in the exhibition is used for worshipping God. The EOC is one of  the few churches - if not the only one - in the world of an ancient religious order with a rich heritage. It has its own peculiar rituals, customs and calendar.


The nearly half-a-million clerics perform services, expound and preach the teachings of the Church and practice the orders of praying, fasting and festivals with their followers. These orders cannot be acquired only through the scriptures; they constitute a tradition that is handed down from generation to generation. That is why one is compelled to admit that the EOC is a living egend, rather than a fossilized institution.


The world has very few faithful versions of the Holy Bible. The Ge'ez version of the Holy Bible is different from others. While the books of Enoch, Jubilee, the book of Esdra Sutu'el and Ascension of Isaiah are the books of the Bible that the world had lost, they are peculiar to the Ge'ez version. These books have been translated into different languages from the Ge'ez version, and recently these books were included in the listed heritage of the world by UNESCO. In other words, they have been preserved by the EOC.


There are now prolific poets in the Church.


 Qene is a peculiar genre of poetry found only in Ethiopia. It is a highly specialized type of poetry. There is also a peculiar music with its own notation produced by Saint Yared of the 6th Century which is still being practiced. The EOC also has its own iconographers, although they are now absorbed by foreign models of icons brought into the country. The Church again has hundreds of thousands of  manuscripts in remote corners of the country. The EOC as an institute has different traditional schools that help to perpetuate its tradition, music and literature. These are the schools of Qene, music and scriptures. Even the Ge'ez language, which is considered dead by modern scholars, is a living language of the Church - not only as a medium of religious services, but also as a living medium of the creative arts like Qene. There is at least one poet in every church and monastery.


In the 16th Century, Fancisco Alvarez, the Portuguese explorer, described Ethiopia as "a home of New Jerusalem, New Golgotha and the Christian citadel." Similarly, the Exhibition Center this week is the home of the history of the 1600-year-old EOC. The exhibition portrays a panorama of historic sites - churches and monasteries, different genres of the Church's literature and manuscripts, the age-old architecture of the Church, the icons, relics, the establishment of the Church, and the expansion of the Church in Diaspora. The only thing the exhibition has failed to display is past time and space.


The exhibition will prove to be an impetus to protect and preserve our heritage, and will even serve to promote the return of our looted relics. At the same time, it has proved that the EOC is a living legend and not a museum-piece.


Let me conclude with the words of His Holiness Abune Paulos: "The exhibition....shows the centuries-old history and the all-rounded services of the Ethiopian apostolic, ancient and national Church. Those who are interested in the EOC, we believe, will know and understand much from this history [exhibition]."