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        The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is distinguished as one of the few Christian denominations where the worship practices of the early church have been preserved. This preservation can largely be attributed to Ethiopia's geographical location and historical circumstances that led to its relative isolation from the rest of the Christian world from the seventh century onwards. Consequently, Ethiopia maintained the form of worship that was adopted in the 4th century. It's insightful to explore this subject in a general context.


1. The Place of Worship:


        Renowned church historian Rufinus provides information confirming the presence of prayer houses in Ethiopia before the official adoption of Christianity. The narrative of St. Frumentius and his brother Aedesius recounts that while governing, Frumentius endeavored to identify Christians among Roman merchants, urging them to establish prayer conventicles resembling the Roman model.


        Following Christianity's recognition as the state religion, Emperor Ezana, Ethiopia's first Christian ruler, constructed a grand church at Aksum, supported by thirty-two monolithic columns and devoid of arches. During this period, ancient pagan temples were repurposed as churches. Notably, the old Sabaean temple at Yeha was transformed into a church by Abba Afse, one of the renowned Nine Saints from the Roman Empire, in the 5th century. Archaeological discoveries at this site unearthed Christian relics like bells and crosses of significant antiquity. Similarly, the church of Abba Pantalewon, on the outskirts of Aksum, was either built on the ruins of or converted from an ancient pagan temple.


         Basilicas of Syrian style, found in the old Aksumite kingdom, at Adulis and Hawlti-Melazo, suggest Syrian influence, possibly from the Nine Saints, most of whom were thought to be of Syrian origin. An extant example of a basilica-style church is at the ancient monastery of Debra Damo, believed to have been constructed by Emperor Gebre Maskal, son of Caleb, in the 6th century. Remarkable churches of this era also include the church at Sana'a, built by Abreha, the Ethiopian viceroy of Yemen, known as al-qalis, which combined basilica and Byzantine architectural styles.


        In the medieval period, while the basilica form was generally retained, it underwent modifications, leading to the creation of unique structures like the monolithic churches of Lalibela. Churches like Medhane Alem and Gennet Mariam feature external columns of an unprecedented style in Ethiopian architectural history, with interiors sharing similarities with older Aksum churches. The facade of Bete Emmanuel reminisces the Aksumite architectural style. The monolithic churches of Lalibela, each with a distinct style, are considered architectural marvels.


        The later medieval period saw a significant shift in church architecture, with the construction of churches in octagonal or circular forms, possibly influenced by the southward movement of Ethiopian power and the prevalent circular dwellings in the south. This architectural style is widespread in southern and western regions where Christianity spread later, while the basilica form persisted predominantly in northern Ethiopia.


        The interior of circular and octagonal churches comprises three concentric sections. The innermost, the Maqdes or Sanctuary (also known as the Kidste Kidusan or Holy of Holies), is where the Tabot or Ark, symbolizing the Ark of the Covenant, resides and is accessible only to priests and deacons. The Tabot's sanctity underpins a church's consecration, and services cannot proceed without it. When the Tabot is paraded during processions, it is veiled, commanding reverence and prostration from onlookers. The middle chamber, the Keddist, is designated for communicants, with men and women segregated. The outer ring, the Qene Mahelet (the cantors' area), is partitioned by curtains into three sections, with separate areas for Debteras (cantors), women, and men. Entrances to the church are distinct, with one reserved solely for women. The churchyard, considered sacred, accommodates those who, feeling unworthy, opt to stand outside during services.


        Modern urban churches sometimes adopt the traditional Alexandrine cruciform design, with separate seating for men and women. Traditional Ethiopian churches, however, lack seating, and worshippers often remove their shoes and use prayer sticks during lengthy services.


2. The Times of Worship

        Church services can be categorized into indoor and outdoor types. Indoor services, conducted in the Holy of Holies, require a minimum of five participants: two priests and three deacons. Participants must fast for at least twelve hours before the service. The sacramental bread and wine are prepared in a designated area within the churchyard, called the Bethlehem. Service timings vary based on fasting periods and holy days, with services typically lasting around two hours but subject to adjustments. Special timings are observed for Easter, Christmas, and Sundays, with some variations in urban areas like Addis


        Outdoor services, conducted by priests and Debteras, also have variable timings. On Sundays, services start at 4 a.m., continuing until Liturgy begins at 6 a.m. Fasting seasons see an earlier start, predominantly featuring the recitation of Se'atat and Qene, a form of epic verse.


3. The Types of Worship

a) Liturgy

       The Ethiopian Orthodox Church retains the ancient service of the Early Church, including the Mass of the Catechumens. Initially intended for adults undergoing baptismal instruction, this part of the service concludes with the Gospel reading and sermon, after which catechumens are dismissed. Although catechumens are no longer present, the Mass continues to be an integral part of worship.

        The Ethiopian Church is unique in having fourteen Anaphoras, each used for specific holy days. Despite their differences, these Anaphoras share common themes: the Incarnation, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. Services are primarily conducted in Ge’ez, with certain sections in the vernacular Amharic. Congregational participation in singing is encouraged, though Western-style choirs are not typical.


       b) Se'atat, the Horologium

The Horologium, composed both day and night by the 15th-century scholar Abba Giyorgis of Gascha, is enriched with hymns and prayers. In larger churches, Se'atat is performed by monks, priests, and deacons in a designated area, while Debteras conduct a separate service.


       c) Mahelet

Cantillation, a fundamental aspect of worship, involves hymns sung in various modes and rhythms. The Deggua or hymnary, attributed to the 6th-century scholar Saint Yared, has been supplemented over the centuries. Debteras, serving as cantors, perform these hymns, often accompanied by musical instruments, hand-clapping, and solemn rhythmic movements. The style of chanting varies based on the liturgical season, with specific hymns like Tsome Deggua sung during Lent and special prayers recited during Holy Week.


4. Manner of Prayer

        The Fetha Negest emphasizes prayer as a means of communion with God, encompassing thanksgiving, praise, confession, and seeking guidance. It prescribes specific postures and orientations for prayer, including standing, girding oneself with a girdle, facing east, making the sign of the cross, and adopting a reverent demeanor. Prostration is a significant aspect of worship, with kneeling or genuflection substituting for complete prostration on specific occasions.


5. Times of Prayer

        The faithful are encouraged to pray seven times daily: upon waking, at the third, sixth, and ninth hours, in the evening, before sleep, and at midnight. Morning and evening prayers are preferably conducted in church, especially on weekends. Omitting prayer, except for valid reasons like illness, is discouraged. Mental prayer is advised when circumstances prevent formal prayer.

6. Fasting

        Defined in the Fetha Negest, fasting involves abstaining from food to seek forgiveness of sins, earn rewards, and subdue physical desires to align with the rational soul. The Ethiopian Church observes approximately 250 fast days annually, with seven official fasting periods. Fasting involves abstaining from meat, dairy, and other animal products, with food consumption restricted to the afternoon. Exceptions are made for pregnant women, the seriously ill, and travelers.


7. Holidays or Feasts

        The Ethiopian Church celebrates nine major and nine minor holy days, all centered around Christ's life. Major holy days include the Incarnation, the Birth of Christ, Epiphany, Hosanna, Crucifixion, Easter, Debra Tabor, the Ascension, and Pentecost. Minor holy days correspond to events in the Advent season and other significant moments. Additionally, each of the twelve Apostles, several martyrs, St. George, St. Stephen, St. John the Baptist, St. Michael, St. Mary, and the religious reformer Emperor Zar’a Ya’iqob are commemorated. St. Mary is particularly venerated, with thirty-three holy days dedicated to her. Many holy days are celebrated monthly, not just annually, reflecting the unique traditions of the Ethiopian Church. On these days, believers engage in charitable acts, visit the sick, reconcile disputes, and participate in social events. Sundays and other holy days are also opportunities for community gatherings, weddings, and cultural activities.

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