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field notes

Jun 17, 2014 | 20:02 GMT

Letter from Ethiopia: Splendid Isolation

The first thing that stood out to me in Addis Ababa was its Christian character: Here, Christianity is not a colonial vestige but an endemic phenomenon. The Ethiopian Kingdom of Axum adopted Monophysite Christianity in the fourth century, long before the conversion of most of Europe. Amid a maelstrom of historical change, the empire, known as Abyssinia, clung to its Orthodox view of Christianity, taking refuge in the mountains and turning away from the sea, its erstwhile source of affluence and influence.

Thinking of these early Christians cut off in these remote mountains, I cannot help but remember the early Portuguese explorers who thought Ethiopia to be the kingdom of the mythical Prester John, who, as legend has it, ruled in splendid isolation, detached from the Muslim coast. The nature of the Christian imagery in Ethiopia is surprising to me. In a nation possessed of deep national pride, most of the portraits of Jesus and the Virgin Mary are fair-skinned, in the style of Greek or Russian Orthodox icons. Darker-skinned images are rare. Blond and blued-eyed religious iconography is relatively common in Latin America, too — something that, for both places, seems to be a result of contact with the richer West and, in my interpretation, symbolizes Western European cultural hegemony.

Church architecture and the cultural trappings of Addis Ababa's Christianity divulge the local religion's Levantine origins, as do the accumulated influences from the Indian Ocean basin. Christian women tend to cover their hair in a Levantine and Orthodox manner, and Christians here abide by strict dietary rules and a fasting calendar, much like Judaism or Islam. People also eat with their right hands, considering the left to be impure.

The isolation provided by the natural fortress of the mountains also preserved Ethiopia's Solomonic Dynasty through the centuries and allowed the country to remain the only African state to avoid European colonization. This geographic separation preserved religion and dynasty but also led to economic, political and technological stagnation.

This legacy is imprinted on the Ethiopian national character. From what I have observed, Ethiopians take great pride in their status as an uncolonized people, but they also justify oppression for the sake of national unity, often adopting a fatalistic attitude toward life. This approach values political conformism that tolerates government malfeasance and even authoritarianism.

It is the interplay between the interior mountain range and the coastal flatlands that seems to dictate much of the country's politics and history. In many cases, this divide is synonymous with the division between Christian and non-Christian Ethiopia. Although the ethnic Tigray in the north share the Christian faith of the Amhara people, several other Ethiopian ethnicities — such as the Afar, the Oromo and the Western Somalis — are Muslim and resent what they call "internal colonization" by the Christians. In fact, because 35 percent of Ethiopia's 90 million inhabitants subscribe to Islam, there are more Muslims in the country than there are in Somalia or in many smaller Middle Eastern nations.

Ethiopia's recent involvement in the violence in Somalia stems from its fear of Islamic dominance in the failed state and the militant presence in Ethiopia's own Muslim Somali population, who view Addis Ababa as an occupying power. This, in a sense, is partly true: Ethiopia's "occupation" of these Somali lands is dictated by the capital's need to secure a buffer zone of lowland between the coast and its mountainous core in order to forestall any future encounters with external powers.

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Letter from Ethiopia: Splendid Isolation
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