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The Ethiopian Orthodox rejection of Chalcedon is remembered even today. The church’s official name includes the word “Tewahedo,” which in the liturgical language of Ge’ez means “being made one” and refers to the unity of Christ’s humanity and divinity in one nature. Today, theologians agree this conservative Christological position — which is shared by the Armenian Apostolic, Coptic, Eritrean, Malankara and Syriac Orthodox churches — reflects cultural, linguistic and philosophic differences more than differences in matters of faith.

Decline. It has often been reported that the rise of Islam in the neighboring Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century led to the decline of Christian Aksum. Yet the hospitality offered by the emperor of Aksum to the family of the Prophet Muhammad — who fled pagan persecution in Arabia — may have contributed to the preservation of the Christian faith in the Horn of Africa.

According to tradition, the pagan princes of Arabia offered Aksum a large bounty for the repatriation of Muhammad’s family, but Aksum’s emperor refused to betray the exiles. According to the Imperial Crown Council of Ethiopia, “this act was possibly a key event in the survival of the young Islamic religion; the prophet deeply appreciated this act of compassion. He instructed his followers to leave the Ethiopians in peace and exempted Ethiopia from jihad. This in turn allowed Ethiopian Christianity to survive intact.”

Nevertheless, Arab Muslim merchants eventually wrested control of the Africa-Asia trade routes from Christian Aksum, whose residents later abandoned their ports on the Red Sea coast and migrated to the interior, settling in the highlands. Eventually, the Ethiopians lost control of what is now the Eritrean coast, ties to Europe were dissolved and a process of southern expansion began. As the former capital of Aksum declined, Christian monks in the 10th century moved the Ark of the Covenant to the uninhabited island of Tullu Gudo, where it remained in secret for generations.

The Zagwe dynasty, a family of kings who ruled Ethiopia after the ninth or tenth centuries, governed what remained of Christian Ethiopia from the town of Roha. The name of the capital was later changed to honor King Lalibela (who reigned in the late 12th and early 13th centuries), who is now famous for commissioning the city’s rock-hewn churches.

In a dream, the king envisioned a “New Jerusalem,” a city of churches built in his realm to compensate for the loss of Jerusalem to Islamic forces in 1187. The king assembled a massive crew of laborers, which included the best available masons and craftsmen in the world, who excavated from the earth the complex of ten churches. His queen is credited with an additional church, which she commissioned to honor her husband after his death.

The churches of Lalibela display remarkably different architectural styles — confusing experts for decades. Strolling through the maze of churches, the visitor encounters imposing fortresslike structures, classic basilicas and tiny chapels. Classical columns support the edifices of some, while carved Arabesque windows adorn others.

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Tags: Ethiopia Church history Ethiopian Orthodox Church Ethiopian Christianity