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Finding the ‘Real Africa’

Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in the U.S. try to translate and preserve their religious texts for a generation growing up in the diaspora—and to reclaim their community’s history

Maggie Phillips
February 12, 2024
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
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In 2018, Princeton University launched the Princeton Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Egyptian Miracles of Mary (PEMM) project, a cataloged study of a combined 3,500 stories and pieces of art related to the Virgin Mary. The works date from the 1300s CE and are in the ancient, mostly defunct Ge’ez language of the region, which is preserved in the liturgy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Christian Church. (Tewahedo is itself a Ge’ez word, meaning unified.)

Why does a database of Ethiopian tales of the Virgin Mary matter today in the U.S., where Ethiopian Orthodox adherents represent a tiny percentage of the population? Although they are a small diaspora community in the United States, working toward better historical understanding of their indigenous religion may hold the key to peace in their country of origin, which is currently in the midst of an ongoing bloody conflict between religious and ethnic groups.

The Ethiopian Orthodox presence in the United States is growing, as the country is a top destination for Ethiopians looking to escape poverty and sectarian instability. Of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s nearly 200 churches in the U.S., almost half have been established since 2010. Rough estimates of their current membership in the States are at nearly 100,000, with around 44,000 regular adherents. While average attendance at a typical Ethiopian Orthodox parish is a few hundred, the bigger parishes boast anywhere from 1,000 to 1,800 regular attendees.

The Ethiopian diaspora in the United States numbers over half a million, and their ties to their country of origin remain close, as many are first-generation immigrants. More than two-thirds have friends and family affected by the ongoing sectarian and political violence in Ethiopia, according to a 2022 survey by the American Ethiopian Public Affairs Committee. Around half report having sent money back to Ethiopia in the form of remittances and charitable donations. Remittances from the United States constitute the largest amount sent to Ethiopia of any diaspora country ($241.1 million annually), and reliance on diaspora contributions have been a stated policy of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose government has set up a Diaspora Trust Fund to fund various government programs.

Like any diaspora population, Ethiopian immigrants are keen to pass their culture and traditions onto their children. Dawit Muluneh—an Ethiopian American Ph.D. student of African studies at Howard University and an Ethiopian Orthodox deacon—teaches Sunday school and preaches to congregations in the Washington, D.C., area, which has a large Ethiopian diaspora population. He also develops religious education curricula for young people in his church. “A lot of times when people grow up in America,” he said, “and you’re trying to introduce them to this ancient African church, there’s a cultural gap.”

The son of Ethiopian immigrants to the U.S. himself, Muluneh’s students are mostly diaspora members who have also grown up in the United States. “When you grow up in Ethiopia, things are given,” he said, but culture and practice need to be explained to children of the diaspora. Muluneh spent a year and a half in an Ethiopian monastery after graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering and working at the Patent Office, before selling his home and dedicating himself to the study of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.

Muluneh works as a researcher and translator on Princeton’s PEMM project, which is helmed by an American professor of Ethiopian studies named Wendy Laura Belcher. One of the goals of the translations in PEMM is accessibility of language—both for Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian students—with translations in both Amharic (the lingua franca of multilingual Ethiopia) and in English.

“Dawit Muluneh has been really important to [PEMM] in terms of staying faithful to the text, faithful to the church, faithful to the culture,” Belcher said in a November Zoom forum on the launch of PEMM, for which he has translated and cataloged manuscripts.

But Muluneh’s collaboration with Belcher and her team is somewhat unlikely.

In 2015, Belcher published a biography of an Ethiopian Orthodox saint, Walatta Petros, from a Ge’ez text translated by another scholar, Michael Kleiner. Walatta Petros lived in the 17th century, and was married to a royal official tasked with forcibly converting people from Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity during the age of Jesuit missionaries in Ethiopia. She resisted, and eventually became a nun in the Ethiopian Orthodox faith.

Working from Kleiner’s translation, Belcher believes Walatta Petros’ life provides evidence of open lesbian relationships in medieval Ethiopian convents. Not everyone agrees: “The word ‘kiss’ does not exist in the text,” according to a prominent critic of Belcher, Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes, who is originally from Ethiopia and is a senior lecturer at Curtin University’s Centre for Human Rights Education in Australia, “but it has been inserted more than once” in Belcher’s biography of Walatta Petros, presented as evidence of same-sex relationships in convents of the time. A word that he said clearly means “friend,” is translated as “companion,” which he contends has a more ambiguous meaning. In Woldeyes’ view, this approach is merely the latest instance of Western academics shoehorning ahistorical Western interpretations into Ethiopian history to suit their ideological priors. In his view, Western academics more or less invent narratives about Ethiopian history that earn their colleagues’ kudos. It is, he said, the result of “power systems that [privilege] white scholars.” (Belcher and Kleiner have responded at length to Woldeyes’ criticisms on Belcher’s website.)

While Muluneh disagrees with Belcher’s conclusions on the life of Walatta Petros, he also disagrees that she represents a neo-colonialist agenda. “She’s a proponent of Ethiopian voices,” he said. “She encourages Ethiopian voices.” By working on PEMM, he said, “I get to challenge her perspectives and I get to translate the texts. I’m part of the translation process now.” Whatever conclusions Belcher reaches are her own, but, he said, “I’m doing my part and making sure that translations have Ethiopian voices behind them.”

Today, both the United States and China recognize Ethiopia as a key player in the geopolitically important Horn of Africa. But the country has been a subject of fascination to outsiders since biblical times—when 1 Kings described the Queen of Sheba paying a visit to King Solomon, a caravan of camels loaded down with spices and treasure in tow. According to the biblical account, after King Solomon answered all of the Queen of Sheba’s burning philosophical questions, “she left and returned with her retinue to her own country,” amazed by Solomon’s wisdom.

We Africans have to be in charge of our own history.

That, said Muluneh, is the traditional story told in Ethiopia about how Abrahamic monotheism began in their land (some indigenous traditions also contend the visit produced a son, who also brought back the Ten Commandments). Centuries later, Christianity’s Acts of the Apostles would recount the Apostle Philip meeting an Ethiopian eunuch, to whom he would explain the teachings of Christianity, and who would in turn bring the faith back to spread in his native home. Pious Christian tradition also contends that Matthew, one of the authors of the four Gospels, preached Christianity in Ethiopia. From a scholarly perspective, Muluneh said, “we know that in the fourth century, there was a transition from pagan worship into Christianity,” based on archeological discoveries of coins that demonstrate a transition away from pagan symbols and language to explicitly Christian inscriptions. This splintered explanation of Christian Ethiopia’s origins—one mythical, one scholarly—reveals an interplay of legend, scholarship, religion, and mystery that has characterized Europe’s relationship with Ethiopia since it began in the Middle Ages.

Medieval Ethiopian Christians and Europeans first came into contact in Jerusalem during the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries, but it wasn’t until the 14th century that the hunt for a mystical Christian king in the East, Prester John, kickstarted the intercontinental relationship.

Prester John never really existed, except as the medieval version of an urban legend. A strange story from the 12th century tells of a purported representative of someone calling himself Patriarch (Prester comes from the word “presbyter,” meaning priest) John of India. The red carpet was duly rolled out for him, and within a few decades, the Byzantine emperor was receiving a mysterious (forged) letter from “Prester John,” with exotic descriptions of his realm, and looking for allies.

It is possible, Ethiopian studies scholar Matteo Salvadore has written, that the letter was meant to serve as an allegory for the ideal Christian monarch. But over the years, popes and kings more or less memed Prester John into existence: He was assembled from a patchwork of pious tradition, hoaxes, garbled transmission of Mongol conquest, and desperation. The times being what they were, if Prester John did not exist, evidently, it was still necessary to invent him. Somewhere, the story went, a Christian king with clerical power—maybe even a descendent of one of the Magi who visited Christ with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh—ruled over a fantastical kingdom in the East, with a vast army at his command, ready to ride to an embattled Christendom’s aid. As the 12th century became the 13th, conquest and exploration brought Europeans in closer contact with eastern peoples, who didn’t match their image of Prester John’s Christian utopia. Accordingly, Salvadore writes, theories emerged that his realm was in distant Ethiopia.

It was a myth that suited both Ethiopians and Europeans, since Christendom might well soon be embattled. The two peoples, both Christian, determined the spread of Islam in their respective backyards constituted a threat. Salvadore is a historian of what he calls the “Ethiopian-European encounter.” In a sprawling 2010 article in the Journal of World History, he describes the back and forth between Ethiopia and Italy throughout the Middle Ages, for which Prester John was the catalyst. First official contact occurred when an embassy of 30 representatives from Ethiopia presented themselves to the pope, having traveled through Italy to arrive in Avignon in 1306, a visit Salvadore credits to Ethiopian concerns over Muslim expansion. A century later, Italy and Ethiopia developed a material connection, as Ethiopian rulers were interested in European artisans and goods, and a religious one: He cites evidence that Ethiopian pilgrims visited Italy, and studied at their major theological centers. Salvadore’s contention throughout the article is that “Christian identity was the currency of exchange,” pushing to the margins any sense of racial difference. “These early encounters,” which were cordial meetings between co-religionists, Salvadore writes, centered around theological discussion and an exchange of knowledge and goods, “seem to suggest that Ethio-European relations were defined by a religious discourse that left very little space to ideas of racial difference.” Far from the Italians seeking out Africa to spread civilization, Salvadore believes, “the Ethiopian parties that visited the peninsula on official missions,” who felt themselves to be on the periphery of the Christian world, “somehow recognized Venice and Naples as important loci of power and targeted them as key destinations.” While other European nations, notably Portugal, cultivated ties with Ethiopia, Italy’s dominance as the center of Western Christianity during the medieval period made it of central importance to Ethiopian secular and religious leadership.

Ethiopian Christianity defies much of the Western narrative about European missionaries and mercenaries descending upon Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries with the intent to exploit and proselytize (although there was that, too). Whether it began with Solomon or something more recent, the fact remains that Ethiopia was Christian long before many European peoples: Scandinavians, Anglo-Saxons, and the Dutch all converted much later than the fourth century.

In terms of their beliefs, while the trappings of their churches and liturgies look much like those of other Orthodox Christianity, Ethiopian Orthodox beliefs are slightly different.

To an outsider, they may seem a distinction without much of a difference. Unlike Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodoxy (i.e., the Orthodox churches of Greece and Russia), the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is a miaphysite faith, contending that Christ has a composite nature that is both human and divine. The other churches adhere to the decision of the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon, which determined for the Latin and Eastern Churches that Christ was at once both fully human and fully divine.

Certainly, the differences were small enough that Salvadore describes Ethiopian monks in 1407 saying an open-air Mass in Bologna that was duly attended by locals, who described them as “good Christians.” Ethiopian clerics also participated in a church council held in the 1440s, called by the pope, to address the schism with the churches of the East and reunify Christendom.

There were some conciliations with different Eastern churches as a result, but the Ethiopian Church, whose representatives at the council were regarded as emissaries of Prester John (apparently extremely long-lived, in addition to possessing a fluid relationship with geography, since Italian records from the 15th century are still recounting embassages from “Prester John,” or the Ethiopian royal court), remained independent.

According to Salvadore, it was the paranoia of the Counter-Reformation that led to a souring of relations between Ethiopia and Europe. Missionaries began to arrive in the mid-1500s hoping to convert Ethiopians to Catholicism—in the words of Jesuit founder Ignatius of Loyola, to “win the Prester’s heart.”

The perception of Europeans as Christian allies,” Salvadore writes, “would leave the stage to suspicion and fear.”

In the 1930s, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, a country that Italy had tried unsuccessfully to invade nearly 100 years before. His officials presided over human rights abuses and war crimes there. (These went largely unprosecuted during WWII and its aftermath, out of a desire to avoid destabilizing Italy after Mussolini’s ouster.) And at the same time, the field of Ethiopian studies was largely brought into existence by Mussolini-backed academics.

Until recently, many of their contentions have been accepted as received wisdom in the field.

“When I was studying,” said Muluneh, “I noticed that a lot of the names were Italian.” He would come to discover that “the ones who get credited for a flowering of Ethiopian studies are fascist Italians under Mussolini.”

“A lot of their kind of teachings and philosophy and ideas,” Muluneh said, “actually recycled back into Ethiopian universities. And that’s what Ethiopians are learning today.” He has pushed back against academic departments, saying he departed the Catholic University of America, where he was originally studying for his Ph.D., in part because of his objection to a lack of receptivity to his views.

We want these stories to be accessible to the young people who want to study and delve into researching the meaning and all the values, the theology, the philosophy these stories render, these stories are holding.

By reclaiming Ethiopian stories and experiences from the 1930s fascist context in which they are usually presented, Muluneh hopes to help heal long-standing divisions, which he contends are bred of misunderstanding and false narratives.

“We Africans have to be in charge of our own history,” said Muluneh. “There’s something wrong when you tell us that we’re sitting on the back of fascist Italians who wrote our history.”

Muluneh published a book, Hopeless Romantic: The Untold Story of Ethiopia, which he wrote in part to reclaim that history, as well as to address current tensions in the country, which he partly attributes to what he sees as the flawed scholarship of much of Ethiopian studies. The ethnic and religious divisions in Ethiopia today are, he contends, largely a false construct of Italian scholarship. “A lot of the things that we’ve heard has been kind of skewed and purposefully written in a way to get us to fight with one another,” he said, ascribing to Mussolini’s researchers the twin motives of division and conquest.

For example, Muluneh said the work of an Italian fascist scholar, Carlo Conti Rossini, is being used to exacerbate a violent ethnic conflict between the Oromo and Amhara people of Ethiopia today.

Conti Rossini, who died in 1949, wrote a history of Ethiopia’s royal Solomonic dynasty, a work that gives the impression that the Amharas have a legacy of regional dominance going back to the 1200s, Muluneh said. Conti Rossini’s work, however, relies on accounts written roughly 500 years after the original act of conquest was supposed to have taken place. “We know that that story has been embellished” to fit 17th- and 18th-century realities, he said. “So does it really show what may have happened in the 13th century?” Other scholars of Ethiopian studies have pointed out that making a bogeyman out of the Amharas—establishing a narrative that they were at the forefront of a centuries-old expansionist campaign and the ethnic cleansing of other surrounding peoples—suited the purposes of Italian fascists, their country having been beaten previously by a show of Ethiopian unity in their abortive invasion in the 19th century. Today, anti-Amhara violence and narratives persist, with predominantly Christian Amharas being labeled as “settlers” in those ethnically gerrymandered regions that the government has determined are the historic preserve of other ethnic groups. Meanwhile, there are those within the predominantly Muslim Oromo community carrying out anti-Christian violence, while a Christian nationalism fed by the mythology of Ethiopia’s Christian imperial past has led to the killing of Muslims and destruction of mosques within the country.

Today, according to Muluneh and other scholars of Ethiopian studies, much of the field continues to be dominated by the work of a former official in the fascist government, Enrico Cerulli, who died in 1988.

“It’s true,” said U.S. Ethiopia scholar James De Lorenzi over the phone when I asked him about Muluneh’s assertion. “It’s indisputable” that Cerulli continues to dominate the field of Ethiopian studies. He gave an example: Cerulli established the International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, which he calls “the most important international conference” in the field. In Italy, De Lorenzi said, Cerulli is responsible for training “the previous three generations of Ethiopian specialists.”

“He and other Orientalists—mostly, but not exclusively, Italian—of that period, the early 20th century, developed an approach to understanding Ethiopia that is very alive and well today in academia, even if not everybody talks about that connection all the time,” De Lorenzi said.

But Cerulli was more than a scholar of Ethiopia.

He was also a fascist official in Ethiopia during Italy’s occupation in the 1930s. As viceroy of the government, he operated as the civilian second-in-command to Mussolini’s governor general in the country. “The war crimes that he was involved with,” De Lorenzi said, “they involved mass killings, torture, extradition, all sorts of horrible acts that involves thousands and thousands of people. And their descendants, you know, inherited that trauma, and never saw the perpetrators of it come to justice.”

Although he was accused by the United Nations War Crimes Commission, Italy never extradited him to Ethiopia for trial. And while Cerulli was never permitted to return to Ethiopia, he was able to go on to be seen as “the founding father by a lot of Western academics and some Ethiopian academics” of his field.

“This isn’t a secret,” De Lorenzi said. “It’s just a taboo. People don’t want to talk about it in academia.”

Verena Krebs, a German scholar of Ethiopian studies, contends that the particular scholarly focus on medieval and early modern Ethiopia comes from the prevalence of European accounts in Latin from those time periods, which put a European lens on a specific piece of the Ethiopian past. It also created the impression of a homogenously Christian land from time immemorial. On the contrary, Krebs asserts, Muslim and pagans coexisted in medieval and early modern Ethiopia, and Muslim Ethiopians especially functioned at high levels in government and commerce. In a country where Christian-Muslim tensions are high, a narrative that overlooks Muslim Ethiopians’ contributions while emphasizing the nominally secular state’s Christian character and imperial dominance over Islam does little to bring together an Ethiopia that is currently dangerously divided along religious and ethnic lines.

In a 2020 interview with Adebabay Media, an online Ethiopian Orthodox news outlet, Woldeyes spoke about the importance of the field of colonial studies in improving understanding of cultures and history, particularly when attempting to diagnose and solve contemporary crises. “The question of colonial scholarship,” he said, “is to ask, what type of image do we have about Africa, and who constructed that image?” His job, he said he tells his students, is to help differentiate between the “real Africa” of people’s lived experience, and the “imagined Africa” that exists in the European mind, a bundle of stereotypes delivered by the writers representing colonial powers.

Even today, he said, “in Ethiopia, the education system does not incorporate our own history. We are studying and learning in the language of Europeans.”

In Woldeyes’ view, the result is that “the entire education system is actually created for the service of people other than Ethiopians.” He said the problem with teaching African scholarship informed by the European experience is that it shifts the focus: Texts are centered not on “how we live together,” he said. “It’s not how beautiful our culture is. It’s not how wonderful and important our indigenous understandings and languages are, and how we can really develop from this organic existence.” Echoing Muluneh, Woldeyes said, “It emphasizes and [focuses] on division, focuses on every instance of history that shows some kind of violence, so history itself becomes violent to us.” For example, Woldeyes said, Western translators may attempt to update a text by using anachronistic names or categorizations for ethnic groups, which can then reinforce or stir up divisions.

Recent years have seen growing concern about a “replication crisis” in science, or the ability to reproduce the findings of a given study. Historian Anton Howes recently published a Substack article on his concerns that the field of history is encountering something similar—a “reproducibility” crisis, or as he calls it, “[using] exactly the same evidence as another person and still get the same result.” He gives examples: the erroneous historical tidbit that Britain dispatched more troops to quash the Luddite rebellion in 1812 than it did to fight Napoleon four years earlier; or the belief that the invention of canned food was the product of a national government-sponsored contest in 19th-century France (“literally never happened,” Howes writes, despite being often cited by supporters of incentivizing innovation). It is, he contends, almost impossible for contemporary scholars to check each and every citation in their publications, which leads to a lot of myth recycling.

Muluneh sees something similar happening in Ethiopian studies, where narratives established in fascist Italy continue to be passed along, with their originators’ priors often unacknowledged. “Would we take the writing of slave masters to get an accurate depiction of how African Americans lived in the 1700s?” he asked. “That’s kind of what’s happening, where we are taking the writings of colonialists and engaging with it, trying to give us an accurate depiction of Ethiopian history, while completely getting rid of the indigenous knowledge.”

Ethiopian Orthodoxy itself was threatened in the 1970s, after the collapse of a monarchy that had reigned since antiquity, and Soviet messaging created a sense among the young that the historic religion of their country was holding them back.

Much of the immigration to the U.S. from Ethiopia in the 20th and 21st centuries has been in response to unrest at home. As the Ethiopian Orthodox Church attempts to instill its ancient faith and traditions in second-generation Ethiopian Americans, initiatives like PEMM aim to help them tell their own stories directly—not filtered through someone else’s lens.

“We want these stories to be studied,” said PEMM translator Mehari Worku. “We want these stories to be accessible to the young people who want to study and delve into researching the meaning and all the values, the theology, the philosophy these stories render, these stories are holding.”

The downstream effects could help prevent future conflicts, as back in Ethiopia, where many of the friends and family of this small, close-knit diaspora (whose engagement is part of the government’s development strategy) still live in an unstable and dangerous situation, and outside powers once again vie for the government’s loyalty.

The violence that fractured Ethiopia throughout the early 2020s may not have captured the attention of the average American news consumer. But the country’s security remains fragile, a year after a peace agreement was reached between the government and the warring factions, and continued instability holds national security implications for the U.S. Once again, as throughout Ethiopia’s history, foreign powers are taking an interest in the country’s geographic position. China has identified it as the crown jewel in its influence-peddling Belt and Road-Initiative. In January 2024, along with Saudi Arabia and Iran, it joins the international economic bloc BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), which is widely understood as an attempt to counterbalance American interests abroad. As America seeks to counter growing Chinese influence in the developing world and Global South, disentangling the existing complex web of animosities is crucial to the kind of unity that 19th-century Italy found so hard to conquer. The root of those animosities is historical and often, religious.

Someday, Belcher, Muluneh, and their team may have one more miracle to catalog:

If PEMM proves to be a trailblazer in Ethiopian studies, by helping Ethiopians—both at home and in the diaspora—reclaim their history for themselves, through the stories of the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Mussolini’s fractious legacy of violence in Ethiopia may finally start to be reversed.

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.