Ethiopia’s first mosque undergoing restoration
Ethiopia is a country full of history and stories. These stories connect the ancient civilisation to several other destinations across the world. One such is its link with Islam and Mecca.
Ethiopians, according to the tour guide, Temesgen Bitewlign, were very receptive of Muslims from Mecca, who were early companions of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and were fleeing persecution. They had been denied the right t Negasho practice their preferred religion and were persecuted by the idol worshippers ruling Arabia.
They first arrived in the Axumite empire, where the then ruler Nejashi, Ashama ibn Abjar, a Christian, received and settled them in Negash, in the country’s Tigray Region.
Negashi is a name derived from the local language, Tigrigna, which means ‘king’ and has an Arabic variant, ‘Najashi.’
According to the guide, their persecutors sent emissaries to bring them back to Arabia, but the King, Ashama refused. It is said that these followers had been instructed by the Prophet to respect and protect Axum as well as live in peace with the native Christians. It is believed that this is the reason for the peaceful co-existence between Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia.
Negash, as old as Islam in Ethiopia
The history of Negash is one tied to that of Islam in Ethiopia dating back to the 7th century and is home to Africa’s first mosque built then. It has been dubbed ‘The second Mecca.’ Nigerian tourists were educated on the fact that during Haile Selaissie’s reign, Muslim communities brought personal, inheritance and family issues before Islamic court.
When our reporter visited, renovations were ongoing by the Turkish government as part of preparations to make it a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The mosque which has been named Al-Nejashi in honour of the king credited for saving the Prophet’s followers.
Tombs of fifteen companions of the Prophet are located in the premises of the mosque. There are plans for landmarks to be erected outside each mausoleum.
The Great Rift Valley: From the Middle East to Africa
Just before embarking on the trip our reporter had read about holidaying on the Great Rift Valley and took a keen interest in the Dankali Depression which is Africa’s lowest point located in Ethiopia. She never imagined she would come face-to-face with this masterpiece from nature. Although she didn’t get to visit Dankali, the bit of the Valley she beheld from heights away, was more than enough to take in. Against her ethics of not using zoom lens for her photographs, the hunger to capture every sedimentary pattern of the mountains got the better of her as she clicked away from every possible angle that she could. Although the encounter wasn’t intimate enough, the trip could have ended at this point and she would have returned home with a very grateful heart.
The Great Rift Valley runs from the Middle East to Africa, beginning from Syria, through Jordan, the length of Egypt’s Red Sea to Ethiopia’s Dankali Depression and Simien Mountains to Kenya’s Jade Sea Lake Turkana, up Tanzania’s Mount Meru ending in Uganda through bottomless lakes to soaring volcanoes.
Adwa, a city of Ethiopia’s sovereignty
The story of Adua and defeating the Italians by Emperor Salassie is a legend which has been proudly narrated to children across Africa. The drive into the market town revealed nothing of the history and story it bore as donkey-drawn carts laden with bricks and farm produce amongst other items, laced the almost vehicle-less streets. Street vendors hawked fruits and other petty items as they advertised out to commuters in vehicles in a fashion typical to a lot of Nigerian cities.
Finally visiting the small unassuming town was a check off our reporters ‘Places to see’ list in Africa.
It was sad to see that only one small concrete and easily missable concrete slab-like plaque served as memorabilia of Ethiopia’s victory over Italy. It was however heartwarming to be in the location which held such a great African history.
Our tour guide, Bitewlign, as if reading our reporters mind, matched his narrative of Adua’s history with just as much gusto.
The two-day battle from March 1 to 2 1896 in Adua remains, he said, one of pride to be recounted for centuries to come with Ethiopia being the only country in Africa to thwart European colonialism. It was a battle in which Ethiopia secured its sovereignty against Italian colonialists.
Italy had recently obtained two impoverished African territories on the Horn of Africa and near Ethiopia: Eritrea and Somaliland. Italy sought to improve its position in Africa by conquering Ethiopia and joining it with its two territories.
Ethiopia achieved this feat under the leadership of Menelik II who pitted Italy against its European rivals while stockpiling weapons to defend itself against their adversaries.
Adua stands at 1, 907 meters above sea level, and is home to several notable churches, including the sixth century Abba Garima Monastery, founded by one of the Nine Saints and is famous for its tenth century gospels.
Moving further north, our reporter caught a glimpse of Fremona village, next door, which has housed the Catholic congregation of priests, Jesuits, sent to convert Ethiopia to Catholicism since the 16th century.
Two cathedrals of Ethiopia
Holy Trinity Cathedral
The Holy Trinity Cathedral is the official seat of the Orthodox Archdiocese of Addis Ababa and was established on December 22, 1931. It was officially inaugurated on January 14, 1943 after construction was halted for five years, during the war of resistance against fascism.
The architecture of the Holy Trinity Cathedral draws one in immediately, upon spotting it. It was built in commemoration of Ethiopia’s liberation from Italian occupation and is the second most important place of worship in Ethiopia, after the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum.
Our reporter got the chance to tour the cathedral premises which is burial place for those who fought against the Italian Occupation, or those who accompanied the Emperor into exile from 1936 to 1941.
Icons like Abune Tekle Haimanot and Abune Paulos of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, are also buried in the churchyard, as is the famous British suffragette and anti-fascist activist Sylvia Pankhurst, a tour material informed.
While mass was ongoing, tourists were able to visit the tombs of Emperor Haile Selassie I and his wife, Empress Menen Asfaw, in the north transept of the church.
Having already visited Axum, our reporter immediately recognised that the tombs were shaped like the obelisks of Axum.
Tourists were unable to visit the burial site of other members of the imperial family buried in the crypt below the church.
A priest who spoke to tourists in the cathedral, explained that, different parts of the church are symbolic and are dedicated to various religious icons.
He said: “The High Altar of the cathedral is dedicated to ‘Sovereigns of the World the Holy Trinity’ which is ‘Agaiste Alem Kidist Selassie’ in Amharic.”
He added that there are two other altars in the Holy of Holies on either side of the High Altar which are dedicated to St. John the Baptist and to Our Lady Covenant of Mercy (‘Kidane Meheret’).
In the newly added St. Michael chapel, located in the south transept of the church, sits the Ark of St. Michael the Archangel (Tabot). It was taken by British forces from the mountain citadel of Magdalla in 1868 during their campaign against Emperor Tewodros II and returned to Ethiopia in February 2002 after being discovered in Edinburgh.
The church was once the original Holy Trinity Monastery Church in the era of Emperor Menelik II, before the Cathedral was erected.
Patriarchs of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are enthroned here as are all bishops also consecrated here.
Our Lady Mary of Zion Cathedral
Art lovers first troupe to see the colourfully-designed altar of Axum’s Our Lady Mary of Zion Cathedral before appreciating other elements to the historic site.
The altar is designed in brialliant colours depicting saints of the church and narratives of symbolic biblical events. This was a medium through which uneducated Ethiopians learned about the Bible.
The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum (Adbarat Kidiste Kidusan Dingel Maryam Ts’iyon) is Ethiopia’s most important church and is believed to contain the Ark of the Covenant.
The original church is said to have been built during the reign of the first Ezana, Ethiopia’s first Christian emperor, during the 4th century AD. It has however been rebuilt several times since then.
The church was the traditional place where emperors were crowned. If such a ceremony did not hold in the church, or the coronation not ratified by a special service at St. Mary of Zion, the emperor could not be referred to by the title of ‘Atse.’
Emperor Haile Selassie built the dome and bell tower of the cathedral in the 1950s. The church became open to both male and female worshippers in that time but the old church remains accessible only to men.
This is in recognition of the fact that the Ark of the Covenant, which symbolises Mary who is the only woman allowed on the premises, allegedly rests in its chapel. Ethiopian tradition believes that the Ark came to Ethiopia with Menelik I after he visited his father King Solomon.
The church is key for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, especially for pilgrimage during the main Festival of Zion Maryam on 30 November.