An Ethiopian vignette, 1935/36

Today Ethiopian Christians celebrate Christmas.

This photo dating from 1935/36, posted one morning to a website for historical photos of the Horn of Africa, flashed in minutes around the Ethiopian diaspora.  A potent memory which had slipped almost completely away and has now returned in heartening detail.


It pictures Christians and Moslems praying at the internal wall of St. George Cathedral in Addis Ababa early in the Italian occupation of Ethiopia.   The photographer was an Italian and the photo was later published by Richard Pankhurst and Denis Gerard (Ethiopia Photographed published in English in 2011). 

In March 1896,  the Ethiopian emperor Menelik II, his army under the protection of the ark (tabot) of St. George Cathedral, preserved the independence of Ethiopia by defeating Italian invaders at Adwa in Tigre.

St. George Cathedral, whose architect was an Italian, was built by Italians taken prisoner at Adwa.  It was completed in 1911. 

This photograph of Muslims and Christians praying for peace at St. George’s Cathedral is potent also in the context of Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the beginning of five years of the only European colonial governance Ethiopia has endured.

The Fascists set the cathedral alight in 1938.  It was restored by Haile Selassie I after his return to Ethiopia in 1941.



The older and even more potent historical context of this photo is this:

A hadith notes these words of the Prophet Mohammed:  ‘Abyssinia is as a land of justice in which no-one is oppressed’  and this is taken to mean the proscription of all forms of war jihad against the country and its Christians.   

The Prophet’s judgment was in gratitude for the protection by the Ethiopian Christian Axumite monarch of members of his family and his followers in their exile from Mecca during an early phase of Islam when the Quraysh were persecuting them.

 A protection which has not held uniformly since then especially during the centuries of Islamic expansion into the east and south-east of Ethiopia.  And Moslem populations were, prior to 1900,  periodically subjected in northern Ethiopia to forced conversion to Christianity.




Copto-Arabic book of prayers; ink on paper, 17th century(?), Monastery of the Syrians (?).  These prayers are thought to be a collection of older texts focusing on the mystery of the salvation.

Displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the winter of 2016 in an exhibition about Jerusalem.  Coptic Christians are among those who worship at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, among whom Ethiopians.

Ge’ez, a Coptic language, remains the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.


Nevertheless there have been thirteen hundred years, many more of peace than of war,  in which Ethiopian Christians and Moslems have lived in Ethiopia.  Together these two communities are thought to comprise at least 60% of the total population. 

A peaceful cohabitation exemplified by this photo returned as a timely reminder in a time of suspicion and strain.



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