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Frumentius of Tyre established his base in Axum, where he had the young king Aezanas baptized. He built numerous churches throughout Ethiopia. He is worshiped in Ethiopian tradition and is known in the Ge’ez language as “Abba Slama,” the equivalent Syriac appellation of “Abo Shlomo” (the father of peace). He has also kept the Syriac title “Abouna” (our father), used in both Ethiopia and Lebanon.

Relations between Lebanon and Ethiopia date back to the Christianization of the latter. Frumentius of Tyre (+383) is the one who introduced Christianity to Ethiopia. In the fifth century, nine monks further developed monasticism and Ethiopian literature through the translation of Greek and Syriac literature. Among them, no less than one monk, Abba Libanos, is believed to have originally been a native of Lebanon.

Bet Medhane Alem the largest monolithic church in the world. Picture Deborah et Zoe Gustlin Evergreen Valley College

Saint Frumentius

Frumentius is identified as a Syriac (i.e., Christian) from Tyre. In his Ecclesiastical History (I,9), Rufinus of Aquileia (345–410) reveals that a Syriac philosopher named Meropius embarked from Tyre in 316 with his nephews and disciples Frumence (Frumentius) and Edese (Aedesius). After a shipwreck on the shores of the Red Sea, the majority of the crew were assassinated, and the two young boys were taken as slaves to the court of Axum, in Abyssinia. However, in this court, they eventually won the favor of the king and became the prince’s tutors. Later, Aedesius returned to Phoenicia, and Frumentius was crowned as the Bishop of Ethiopia by Archbishop Athanasius of Alexandria. He built a large number of churches throughout the kingdom, where the Synaxarion acknowledged him as the Illuminator of Ethiopia.

The Nine Saints

During the fifth century, mainly after the Council of Chalcedony’s meeting in 451, monks and hermits, predominantly Syriac, headed to Ethiopia and settled there. Among them, the most prominent ones are the nine saints who would become the pioneers of Ethiopian monasticism. They are Za-Mikael, also known as Aragawi (the Elder), Pantalewon (Pantaleon), Isaak, also known as Garima, Gouba, Afse, Aleph, Matta (Matthew), Sehma, and Libanos. Like Frumentius and Aedesius, some of them may have been natives of Lebanon, notably Abba Libanos, as his name suggests.

According to tradition, they are credited with the translation of several theological works into Ge’ez. These include the Monastic Rule of Saint Pachomius, the Life of Saint Anthony by Saint Athanasius, and the compilation of Qerillos, which includes the De Recta Fide by Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria. In doing so, they introduced monasticism and eremitic life to Ethiopia. Even today, hermits are known as Tsadaqan, the equivalent of the Syriac term Zadiqeh (the Righteous).

A Language and a Mountain

Just like Syriac in Lebanon, Ge’ez in Ethiopia has remained a liturgical language, while Amharic has become prevalent in daily life. Similar to Lebanon’s epigraphy, Ethiopia’s uncovers an extensive use of Greek from ancient times until the fifth century when it began to be replaced by Syriac and Ge’ez. Just like Lebanon, Ethiopia experienced a strong Latin influence starting from the sixteenth century, thanks to the Maronite College in Rome for the former, and by dint of the Portuguese for the latter.

Like Lebanon, Ethiopia is a mountainous country that has been protected from Arab expansions by its topography. Its current capital, Addis Abeba (New Flower) – located at an altitude of over 2,000 meters in the heart of the country – is a continuous reminder of the kinship between Semitic languages, as the word for flower is known as “Habobo” in Maronite Syriac manuscripts.

Lalibela the new Jerusalem of Africa. Picture Deborah et Zoe Gustlin Evergreen Valley College


The religious capital of Ethiopia is the majestic Lalibela, situated at an altitude of over 2,600 meters. It was founded as a monastic city on the site of the ancient town of Roha, by King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (1172-1212) in lieu of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which had become inaccessible due to Islamic invasions. This king was canonized by the Ethiopian Church, and Lalibela, named after him, became the new Jerusalem. The latter is a replica of the original Jerusalem, starting with Golgotha, the Jordan River, the Tomb of Christ, all the way to the Sinai. It is a troglodyte world that glorifies monolithic architecture with its eleven rock-hewn churches, classified since 1978 as a World Heritage Site.

The masterpieces of this African Jerusalem are scattered on both sides of the river called the Jordan. To the north of this watercourse are the churches of Bet Mesqel (House of the Cross), Bet Maryam (House of Mary), Bet Mikhael, Bet Golgotha, Bet Ghel, and above all, Bet Medhane Alem (Savior of the World), which, with its peristyle, is considered the largest monolithic church in the world. A little further away, the impressive Bet Giyorgis (or Church of St. George) is carved in the shape of an Orthodox cross at a 15 meters’ depth. To the south of the Jordan River, there are Bet Gabriel-Rufael, Bet Amanuel, Bet Merkorios, and the astonishing Bet Abba Libanos, which hangs on to the mountain by its roof only. Its name is equivalent to the Syriac Beit Abo Libanos (House of Abba Libanos).

Bet Guiorguis. Picture from Lalibela’s Facebook account

Secret Art

While Ethiopia has remained faithful to the ancient Axumite civilization in the field of architecture, influences and exchanges appeared in the religion art. The Syriac influences seen in Greek, Armenian, and Latin arts are also found in Ethiopian art, as evidenced in the iconographic themes, compositions, and details.

However, African identity left its mark on Ethiopian art, giving it a distinct character within the Eastern Christian world and placing it at the crossroads of Semitic, Byzantine, and African influences. This art, which Jules Leroy presents as stemming from the Syro-Byzantine tradition, flourished in the realm of frescoes, icons, and manuscripts as a continuation of Coptic iconography, but with a distinct African character. The drawings are more primitive, and the colors are more exotic. The graphic expression of Ethiopian artists exudes strength and confident strokes.

Bet Abba Libanos hewn into a rock face. Picture Deborah et Zoe Gustlin Evergreen Valley College

This iconography became even more explicitly Africanized in the less formal realm of so-called magical scrolls. Here, the expressive drawing of the protective eye prevails alongside crosses and archangels, and solemnity is even more pronounced.

The comparison between Ethiopian iconographic themes and those of the Maronite Syriac codex of Rabboula (586 AD) is captivating. Despite an expressionist style and vibrant colors, the Ethiopian artist incorporates subjects, compositions, and Syro-Byzantine canons.

Large compositions are typical of this Christian art. Among the most emblematic are the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. Moreover, some notable works are the Annunciation, the Dormition, and Jesus Entering into Jerusalem. All of these portrayals follow the Christian iconographic codes found in various Greek, Latin, Armenian, Coptic, and Syriac traditions.