The following amazing article was written and published by the World’s best Newspaper, by the New York Times, 113 years ago, on May 4, 1896
Origin of Monastic Live – Africa. Not so Dark After All – Emperor Menelek’s Descent from Sheba—Priests Can Divorce—The Problem in the Soudan—Many of the Monasteries Said to Possess Valuable Documents and Manuscripts.
Christendom has a deeper interest in Abyssinia and its remarkable monarch, Emperor Menelek, than the world at large has stopped to consider. It is not the fate of the Italian Army nor the march of the British toward the Soudan that attracts thinking people. It is the general focusing of the world’s lenses upon that part of the globe which was literally the cradle of culture and of Christianity.
It has been the vogue to speak of Africa as a “dark continent.” a God-forsaken and debauched region. There has been some foundation—nay, one had almost said positive justification—for this practice because among the wild and untamed tribes of Central Africa and the inhabitants of the South and West all the excesses of debased carnalism prevailed.
Not so, however, in Abyssinia has this been the case, despite the habitudes of sensational correspondents and those who were part of or accompanied besieging and invading European armies. Abyssinia/Ethiopia and Egypt have been and still continue to be the repositories of the relics and treasures of a wondrous civilization, a grandeur, learning, and culture to which modern historians referentially defer and point with reverential awe.
If the wars which have begun in Africa, particularly in that region of which Ethiopia is part, reveal the treasures hidden in the monasteries of the Coptic monks and the monophysite priests, they will be a blessing to Christianity, science, and progressive civilization.
Emperor Menelek has been regarded as a “barbarian” by Europeans, who seem to have adopted the term with even less justification for it than had the Roman people when they applied it to all other races on earth. But when this “barbarian” is investigated he turns out to be by birth and possibilities very much of a gentleman of lofty lineage and invaluable possessions. He rules to-day a country of about 100,000 square miles, inhabited by 5,000,000 persons, whose forefathers were believed to be the oldest and greatest people known to history. They are divided into three great subdivisions of the whole: First, the Ethiopians of Tigré, who speak the ancient Geez language; second the Amharic tribes, living in Amhara and Shoa, and, third, the Agows of Wag Lasta, said to be of Phoenician origin. There are also the Gallas, who settled in Amhara and Shoa.
It must be admitted that the frequent civil wars brutalized and depraved these people by engendering evils and vices and by destroying the literature that once belonged to Abyssinia and which tradition tells us was important and extensive. Abyssinia is situated between latitudes 8 degrees 30 minutes and 16 degrees 80 minutes north, and between longitudes 34 degrees 20 minutes and 43 degrees 20 minutes east. It is bounded north and northwest by Nubia and south and east by Galla and Somali and Adal. Its topography may be described as elevated table land and extensive valleys, and it has many thriving cities. So much for the geographical summary of Emperor Menelek’s dominions. Of its relations to Christianity and the world’s early greatness a few words of description will be interesting.
Menelek claims to be a direct descendant from the Queen of Sheba and her son Menelek, whose father was said to be Solomon, and the legendary lore of this part of Africa says that the first Menelek was a Jew and was educated by the wise King himself. Be this as it may, the present Menelek is a wise man, and is bent on being classified by his European cousins as their peer—a potentate of common sense and progressive, of longer descent and loftier lineage—prepared to take his place among them for the benefit of his people and humanity. He wishes to belong to the Geneva Convention, and it is asserted that he stands ready to throw open the innermost recesses of his kingdom and its monasteries to the properly accredited explorer.
There should be plenty to repay research of this character in a land so wealthy in Biblical tradition, and where stands the oldest temples and religious edifices. In Axum, the city of the Queen of Sheba, there stands a cathedral to-day as old as Christianity itself. If historians are to be believed.
Coptic Christianity was and is the religion of the people. There are, of course, many Mohammedans and Jews. The first apostle of Christianity in Abyssinia chroniclers claim to have been the Chamberlain of Queen Candace of Ethiopia, whose baptism is recorded in Acts Vll., 27. But Frementius and Adesius of Tyre were slaves to the King of Abyssinia, and on his death the former became tutor to the hereditary Princes, and Adesius went back to Tyre. This was in A.D. 320, and Frementius formed a Christian Church among the Greek and Roman merchants in Axum. He then went to Alexandria and was consecrated by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. The King was baptized and Axum became the See of a Metropolitan, with seven suffragans. In the fifth and sixth centuries the monophysites controlled the patriarchal See of Alexandria.
Subsequent to this Christianity spread over Nubia and Abyssinia and continued to spread until the Mohammedans overran the country and planted the faith of Moslem wherever they appeared. Through the frightful days of the seventeenth century Abyssinia remained faithful in a large sense to Christianity, and Rome, through the Portuguese, made vigorous efforts to bring the Abyssinian Christians beneath the Papal rule. The effort was not successful for any length of time any more than was the effort to establish the Anglican Church there when Andraos was consecrated Abuna, or Metropolitan, of Abyssinia by the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, in 1841.
The Church has always been monophysitic and has many peculiar features in its ritual; the Jewish Sabbath was observed as well as the Christian; circumcision preceded baptism; dancing was in the services just as it was in the Jewish Temple; baptism among the Coptic Christians was by immersion, and communion was administered daily to the laity.
The Church is a monastic Church. The beginning of the monastic life was in the deserts of Egypt, and the Coptic Christians gave the impulse to the development of Christian asceticism, which later resulted in monasteries and convents. The most celebrated convents in Abyssinia are Debra Libanos, in Sliso; St. Stephen, on Lake Haik; Debra Denus and Axum Thion, in Tigré, and Lahbela, in Lasta.
Each Church has a Tabot, or ark of the Covenant, behind the curtain of is own holy of holies, which may have lent some color to the tradition that the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple had been transferred for safety to Axum by the early Menelik when it was imperiled. But, as Mr. Kipling points out, “that is another story.”
At present this article’s purpose is to show that this “barbarian” Menelek is not such a barbarian after all, and that he really may be, and very likely is, the custodian of the archives and secrets of the earliest Christians and the orthodox Jews. One thing is quite certain. It is that the Coptic Christians were the first of great Christians, and that Africa was not so dark a continent then as people imagine. The Copts were the principal sect of Christians in the Valley of the Nile, and were and still are descendants of the inhabitants of Egypt in the days of the Ptolemies. There is ancestral greatness.
A few additional peculiarities in Abyssinian Christianity are worthy of note. Priests have power to divorce, and a married man can cast his matrimonial gyves and throw the support of his children on to his wife’s shoulders by becoming a monk. The Bible is in eighty-one books and is written in the ancient language of Axum, and contains the Roman Catholic canon and many other books.
Thus it will be seen that Christendom, through these wars and strifes now raging in the Valley of the Nile, may acquire information hitherto hidden from all but Abyssinian and Coptic fanatics’ eyes for centuries.
It is asserted that in many of the monasteries valuable documents and manuscripts have been saved for ages, just as were manuscripts in the Middle Ages in Europe. It has even been suggested and published that tomes, parchments, and volumes believed to have perished with the library at Alexandria were in reality secreted in Coptic convents and sanctuaries throughout Ethiopia, Abyssinia and Nubia to be resurrected shortly by means of these bitter conflicts and annihilation of armies.
Abyssinia and Ethiopia – once the Ethiopian Empire – are repositories of secrets vital to history and to progress. Shall they be revealed by force of arms or by moral suasion and courtesy to a monarch who has hitherto been proclaimed a “barbarian”?