"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The Glories of Ethiopian Christianity

When I teach Eastern Christian iconography, I always reserve my favourite tradition, the Ethiopian, to the end, after we have been utterly exhausted by the seemingly endless surfeit of Byzantine images, and only moderately sobered up by the Coptic tradition. I tell my students to keep an eye on the Ethiopian tradition for its academic study is only now coming into its own.

That study will be greatly edited by three recent books, highly praised by the venerable and eminent historian Peter Brown in a recent NYRB essay I read with great delight. Here is the choicest bit:

In 1441 Ethiopian monks visited Rome. They told Pope Eugenius IV...that the Ethiopians were somewhat surprised that they had received no word from any pope in eight hundred years. It was time for that negligence to be remedied. However, they reassured Eugenius that they would report back to their master that the pope seemed to be a good Christian!

The arc of the essay is to point out what a formidable cultural stronghold Ethiopia was, far surpassing all the patronizing nonsense later talked about it by Roman and European Christians and historians, including that execrable old fool Gibbon. Ethiopian Christianity, in Brown's mind, must be counted at least as strong and important a tradition as the Latin, Greek, or Syriac. He advances an interesting thesis, worthy of debate by theologians, that perhaps Ethiopia's being miaphysite or monophysite (he uses the terms interchangeably, which is not without problems) is what abled them to form such a stronghold of Christianity that was never swallowed up by Islam. 

In any event, Brown draws our attention to three recent publications, all of which he praises. The first of these is A Contextual Reading of Ethiopian Crosses Through Form and Ritual: Kaleidoscopes of Meaning by Maria Evangelatou (Gorgias Press), 382pp. Brown praises this as a "book of stunning beauty." About it the publisher further tells us this:

Ethiopia is unique among Christian lands for the incomparable prominence of the cross in the life of its people and for the inexhaustible variety and intricacy of decorative patterns on cross-shaped objects of all kinds. Crosses of wondrous diversity and sophistication are extensively used in religious and magic rituals, as well as in the daily social interactions and personal experiences of people in a variety of contexts. This book explores the ways in which Ethiopian crosses reflect and shape a broad range of ideas, from religious beliefs to interrelated socio-political values, and from individual notions of identity and protection to cultural constructs of local and universal dimensions. Thus the cross of the Ethiopian tradition emerges as the sacred matrix that encompasses the life of the world in both its microcosmic and macrocosmic dimensions; and as the social and cultural nexus through which and with which people interact in order to shape and express personal and communal identities and hopes.The investigation includes textual and visual evidence, as well as aspects of Ethiopian history and cultural tradition, and highlights elements of both continuity and change. Special attention is given to religious rituals in which crosses guide the participants to internalize abstract ideas central to their culture, through sensorial experience and interaction. A main objective of this analysis is to contribute to an understanding of visual creations as interactive depositories and therefore also generators of ideas, with an influential role in identity formation, socio-cultural interactions and the construction of power relations.

The second book he notes, and praises equally highly, is Samantha Kelly, A Companion to Medieval Ethiopia and Eritrea (Brill, 2020), 606pp. About this book the publisher tells us this:

A Companion to Medieval Ethiopia and Eritrea introduces readers to current research on major topics in the history and cultures of the Ethiopian-Eritrean region from the seventh century to the mid-sixteenth, with insights into foundational late-antique developments where appropriate. Multiconfessional in scope, it includes in its purview both the Christian kingdom and the Islamic and local-religious societies that have attracted increasing attention in recent decades, tracing their internal features, interrelations, and imbrication in broader networks stretching from Egypt and Yemen to Europe and India. Utilizing diverse source types and methodologies, its fifteen essays offer an up-to-date overview of the subject for students and nonspecialists, and are rich in material for researchers. 

Contributors are Alessandro Bausi, Claire Bosc-Tiessé, Antonella Brita, Amélie Chekroun, Marie-Laure Derat, Deresse Ayenachew, François-Xavier Fauvelle, Emmanuel Fritsch, Alessandro Gori, Habtemichael Kidane, Margaux Herman, Bertrand Hirsch, Samantha Kelly, Gianfrancesco Lusini, Denis Nosnitsin, and Anaïs Wion. 

The third and final book is Medieval Ethiopian Kingship, Craft, and Diplomacy with Latin Europe by Verena Krebs  (Palgrave, 2021), 325pp. About this book the publisher has this to say: 

This book explores why Ethiopian kings pursued long-distance diplomatic contacts with Latin Europe in the late Middle Ages. It traces the history of more than a dozen embassies dispatched to the Latin West by the kings of Solomonic Ethiopia, a powerful Christian kingdom in the medieval Horn of Africa. Drawing on sources from Europe, Ethiopia, and Egypt, it examines the Ethiopian kings' motivations for sending out their missions in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries - and argues that a desire to acquire religious treasures and foreign artisans drove this early intercontinental diplomacy. Moreover, the Ethiopian initiation of contacts with the distant Christian sphere of Latin Europe appears to have been intimately connected to a local political agenda of building monumental ecclesiastical architecture in the North-East African highlands, and asserted the Ethiopian rulers' claim of universal kingship and rightful descent from the biblical king Solomon. Shedding new light on the self-identity of a late medieval African dynasty at the height of its power, this book challenges conventional narratives of African-European encounters on the eve of the so-called 'Age of Exploration'.

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