When I decided to go to Ethiopia, my only reference was the Queen of Sheba. My sister, Cindy, and I fondly remember our Grandma Pope–if she perceived an insult–declaring “she thinks she’s the Queen of Sheba!” But Cindy and I found very little about the Queen of Sheba before I traveled to Ethiopia. So I listened with interest when visiting Ethiopian churches about the significant role she played.
It is widely believed that the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon in Jerusalem because she had heard of his wisdom. The Queen lavished the King with an abundance of precious spices. There are numerous versions of this event, but the Ethiopians believe the Queen bore King Solomon’s son, Manilek, and raised him in Ethiopia. When Manilek reached adulthood he desired to visit his father, and stayed in Jerusalem for five years. When Manilek returned to Ethiopia, King Solomon sent the Ark of the Covenant with Manilek, accompanied by armed forces.
The Ethiopians claim to have this original Ark of the Covenant, in the Axum Church in northern Ethiopia, formerly the capitol of the Kingdom of Aksum. Consequently, each of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian churches have a replica of the tablets in the original Ark of the Covenant, called a “tabot.” The older churches were always octagonal or circular, to accommodate the inner sanctum housing the replica in the center. Only Priests are allowed to touch the tabot, and the worship services are held on the periphery of the church. Large drums are stored in this area, which are central to the distinctive song and dance of the worship.
The Ethiopians believe they embraced Christianity from the beginning and that apostles visited the region. But the church places an emphasis on Old Testament traditions that bear many similarities to Judaism. For example, you must take your shoes off before entering the church, men and women are seated separately, women must cover their hair, men must be circumcised, dietary restrictions, etc.
It was fascinating to learn about this religion! I can’t wait to tell you about the magnificent churches in Lalibela in my next post.