Memory of revelation seeing ancient Ethiopian Bible and pray for recovery of relics

For the past twenty years I have been studying Episcopal or Anglican theology and also interested in early Christianity throughout the world. Living in Ethiopia since 2012 and in Tigray since 2015 gave a wonderful opportunity to learn about the culture and history of Ethiopian Orthodox Church whose roots begin in the Axumite Empire which is now Tigray. In September 2018 I made an extended visit to the city of Axum including to the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. The first church site of Saba people who would become the people of Tigray( ህዝቢ ትግራይ). The original establishment of this church goes back to the 4th century when the Axumite King Ezana converted to Christianity.

As I was a visiting Professor from Mekelle University the priest in attendance allowed me to see an ancient Bible.  He carefully opened a 300+ year old Bible composed of goat skin pages and I take the photograph below. For several minutes I pondered what it was like to carefully construct and write such a treasure. How hundreds of years ago Christian followers gathered while the Ge’ez language in which it was written was spoken aloud by the priest for the congregation to hear. I was touched by the Holy Spirit by it’s presence. This reflection inspired by this document made me realize that it was not meant to be the private ownership of one person who was likely not to even be a believer in the message carried. No pious Christian would personally own such a treasure for himself. Instead it is a legacy to be shared by the Tigray.

A 300+ year old Ethiopian Orthodox Bible in the Our Lady of Zion Church in Axum, Tigray kindly shown to me in 2018

Over 90% of Tigray are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. Even for the Muslim population in Tigray there is special relationship to the Tigray born church because it was an ancient Tigray king, Christian King Negash, who welcomed refugees, followers of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him), who were fleeing persecution from nonbelieving Saudi royalty in the 7th century.

Unfortunately now we know that Christian worshipers in Axum and Islamic worshipers in the town of Negash were attacked by Eritrean forces and religious relics stolen from both the church in Axum and the mosque in Negash. Although an investigation by Mariz Tadros , Professor of Politics and Development at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex as well as director of the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID) reported in March 2021 that the purpose of the attacks was to demoralize religious followers she wondered if relics were stolen. Ethiopian and Eritrean supporters denied these claims but now new evidence as come to light.

An ancient Ethiopian Orthodox manuscript for sale on Ebay a week ago was just one of many items

For the past few months and accelerating the past week or so many precious Ethiopian Orthodox relics including ancient Bibles and Tabots (symbols of the Arch of the Covenant) have appeared for sale on Ebay. The international police Interpol and civic minded art experts are investigating the likelihood that the sales are coming from Eritrea. The meaning and value of these items is that they allow present day Tigrayans to connect with their ancient history and are a legacy to be preserved for generations to come and shared by the community. I am pleased to hear that Ebay is cooperating with requests not to sell this items and to expose the sellers.

A Tigray friend observed last week that over a 24 hour period that more than 20 precious Bibles and other relics were sold on Ebay.  Ebay has apparently promised to only accept legitimate items that are well documented. This morning I searched Ebay and found no Bibles. There were 8 antique pre-owned paintings on wood frame mostly priced below $200 shipping from Germany.  I pray international authorities and people of good will will cooperate to stop these sales and recover them so that they can be returned to their rightful owners to restore their legacy.

Cruel irony of Ethiopia celebrating Epiphany after the Axum massacre

The Chapel of the Tablet in Aksum, Ethiopia claims to be the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. Armed forces under orders from Abiy Ahmed desecrated Aksum.

A special role of the Tigray in Ethiopian Christian history is evident today which is the eve of the Epiphany.  According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church calendar the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist will be celebrated in a two festival.  On the first day, Ketera (meaning  blocking of waters for celebration) traditionally the congregants lead by the priest escort a tabot, which is a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, to initiate the holiday. On the second day after the celebration the tabot is returned to the church. This shows the continuity between the Jewish roots and Christian traditions in the saga of the Axumite empire.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church began in Tigray in the city of Axum when in the 4th century King Ezana officially adopted Christianity.  Many centuries before the Queen of Sheba of the same area had born a son, Menelik, from the Israeli king Solomon and according to church tradition had brought the original Ark of the Covenant to Axum. 

Between November 19 and 20, 2020 Eritrean invaders came to Axum and killed hundreds of church worshipers. They left the bodies where they lay and did not allow the families to remove the bodies for several days. No doubt this attack was approved by the Ethiopian government. It escapes me how Ethiopians can celebrate this holiday after desecrating the traditional home of the Ark of the Covenant.