The best books on the ancient Christian faith of Ethiopia

John Binns Author Of The Orthodox Church of Ethiopia: A History
By John Binns

Who am I?

I had visited many Eastern Orthodox churches across Eastern Europe and the Middle East for a research project, and finally came to Ethiopia. Here I encountered a large and thriving Christian community which reached back to the earliest days of the church. Its location between the Middle East and East Asia and Africa as well as Europe has given it a distinctive way of living and worshipping which is unique in the Christian world – and overlooked by other churches. I’ve spent the last twenty years exploring this tradition which gives the rest of us a radically different understanding of faith.

I wrote...

The Orthodox Church of Ethiopia: A History

By John Binns,

Book cover of The Orthodox Church of Ethiopia: A History

What is my book about?

Surrounded by steep escarpments to the north, south, and east, Ethiopia has always been geographically and culturally set apart. It has the longest archaeological record of any country in the world: indeed, this precipitous mountain land was where the human race began. It is also home to an ancient church with a remarkable legacy. The Church of Ethiopia is the only pre-colonial church in sub-Saharan Africa; today it has a membership of around forty million and is rapidly growing.

This book is a major study of the history and theology of a community that has developed a distinctive approach different from all other churches. John Binns explains how its special features have shaped the life of the Ethiopian people, and how political changes since the overthrow of Haile Selassie have forced the Church to rethink its identity and mission. 

The books I picked & why

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Ancient Churches of Ethiopia: Fourth-Fourteenth Centuries

By David W. Phillipson,

Book cover of Ancient Churches of Ethiopia: Fourth-Fourteenth Centuries

Why this book?

David Phillipson is an archeologist who has excavated – and shown me round – sites at Axum and other places. Here he guides us through the early history of the church from the 4th to 15th centuries by showing the wonderful photos, descriptions, and plans of the main church sites, supplemented by historical and geographical essays. A tour of the buildings is a clear and perceptive introduction to this tradition – as well as being a breath-taking journey through some of the more important historic centres of this ancient civilisation.


Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society

By Donald N. Levine,

Book cover of Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society

Why this book?

Ethiopia is a country with the second largest population in Africa. There are over 80 ethnic groups and languages, living in a region that includes the largest area of mountains in Africa and also the lowest point on the earth’s land surface. While this book tells the history of the Christian north, including the national epic which tells how Ethiopian kings are descended from Solomon of Israel, it also describes the culture and traditions of other societies which make up this fascinating country, and shows both the tensions and the creativity within Ethiopian society. 


Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia: Monarchy, Revolution and the Legacy of Meles Zenawi

By Gérard Prunier, Éloi Ficquet,

Book cover of Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia: Monarchy, Revolution and the Legacy of Meles Zenawi

Why this book?

Ethiopian society has gone through radical changes and transformations during the last century – and which continue into an uncertain future. The medieval-style empire of Haile Selassie was toppled by a Marxist dictatorship in 1974, which in turn fell to an alliance of northern peoples who set up a federalist system in 1991, which is now showing signs of tension. This collection of sixteen essays by some of the best-known authorities in their fields, outlines the political history and economic changes. It also tells about the arrival of Pentecostal churches, the growth of militant Islam, and the adaptation of the Orthodox church to a changing world. 


The Wife's Tale: A Personal History

By Aida Edemariam,

Book cover of The Wife's Tale: A Personal History

Why this book?

The author is an Ethiopian/Canadian journalist living in London. The book is a vivid biography of her grandmother, Yetemegnu, based on many conversations and interviews. It begins in a traditional household in northern Ethiopia where the grandmother was married at the age of 10 to an ambitious priest twenty years older than her, and it takes us through a century of history as the family lives through and adapts to turbulent times, ending up in modern Addis Ababa where her son became a successful doctor and emigrated to Canada. It’s a beautiful and affectionate account that introduces us to a changing society. 


The Chains of Heaven: An Ethiopian Romance

By Philip Marsden,

Book cover of The Chains of Heaven: An Ethiopian Romance

Why this book?

The author walks from Lalibela to Axum, the two main pilgrimage destinations of Christian Ethiopia. It’s a journey of 250 miles through the heartland of Christian Ethiopia. It’s a spectacular mountain landscape, along an old road which passes by many churches and monasteries. As he walks, he describes the people he meets, explains the history of the region, tells the stories and legends, and shares his adventures. For the visitor, Ethiopia is a strange and unfamiliar place and so encountering Ethiopia is always a journey of exploration. We need a guide and Philip is an engaging and well-informed travel companion.


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