Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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Izabela ORLOWSKA, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, Germany

This paper will look at secular themes in church murals of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church dating to late 19th and early 20th centuries and argue that they reflect changes often resulting from Ethiopia’s interactions with the outside world. These images offer insights into shifting identities often shaped by external events. The very idea of a reunited Ethiopia as a realm of the king of kings is visible in battle scenes of wars with Egyptians (mid 1870s) and later with the Dervishes from the Sudan in late 1880s. Highland Ethiopians are depicted as defenders of their Christians faith united against an external enemy. The idea of Ethiopia as an entity, as opposed to armies of regional rulers, is further cemented in scenes depicting the victory of Adwa (1896) against invading Italian forces. The latter also introduces a racial and a colonial dimension. Two churches in Addis Ababa introduced on their walls the Ethiopian flag and the coat of arms. These new symbols of nationhood properly came to light during the reign of Menelik II (1889-16) and are of foreign origin. Church murals also depicted new controversial narratives of power providing legitimacy for unusual power arguments (Iyasu, Zewditu-Teferi). Menelik’s designated heir Lij Iyasu was visually sanctioned by the Church to counterbalance his Muslim background. After his removal from power, partly due to external pressure, the choice of Menelik’s daughter, the female ruler (titled the queen of kings) was sanctioned in murals and during her coronation ceremony by referring to a foreign female monarch. The above mentioned examples and many more suggest a clear imprint on the sense of identity and belonging resulting from external interactions. They also illustrate the adaptation of foreign models. The Church with its rituals and distinct national character served as a space where to introduce changes to the social order of the highland society and to sanctify them by divine powers. This paper will attempt to illustrate how seemingly timeless Ethiopian Orthodoxy has in fact played a major role in sanctifying change resulting from various forms of global interaction.