Museum of Ethnography
H-1146, Budapest, Dózsa György út 35.
Phone: +36 30 378 1582
Text: Tamás Régi
Photo: Krisztina Sarnyai
The Christian faith first gained a foothold in Ethiopia —a country on the Horn of Africa— in the 4th century A.D., from which time it gradually replaced the Afro-Asian belief system formerly practiced across the Aksumite Empire. According to legend, Christianity made its appearance in the Aksumite royal court via a pair of castaways, one of whom, Frumentius, came to assist in the education of the child king Ezana. Once Ezana took power, he sent Frumentius to petition (Saint) Athanasius of Alexandria for his blessing toward the formation of an Ethiopian Coptic Church. Ultimately, Athanasius made Frumentius a bishop and sent him back to Ethiopia, where he set out to reorganise the country on Christian principles. The event marks the founding of the Christian Ethiopian State, whose bishops were appointed by the Coptic Church in Egypt until as late as the 20th century.
Photo by Krisztina Sarnyai
The Ethiopian liturgy and calendar, too, adhere to the traditions of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Even now, the year both in Ethiopia, and in Eritrea is 2014, with New Year’s Day falling on September 11th. Because the Ethiopian calendar calculates dates based on a solar system, a thiteenth month of five or six days is added every year, giving rise to the tourist industry slogan ‘thirteen months of sunshine’.
Cross pendant NM 67.76.11. Photo by Krisztina Sarnyai
While Ethiopia’s calendar adheres to Coptic tradition, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tawehedo (‘Catholic’) Church boasts an array of symbols all its own. Two of the most important of these are the ubiquitous tabot, symbolising the ark of the covenant, and the cross. Depictions of the cross existed in the lands of Ethiopia even before the appearance of Christianity in the 4th century A.D., and ‘Greek’ crosses, typically with arms of equal length, can still be seen on the walls and various other surfaces of holy sites today.
Cross pendant NM 67.76.18. Photo by Krisztina Sarnyai
Over the past 1600 years, the symbol of the cross has permeated everyday life in Ethiopia: it is seen worn around the neck as a pendant and is frequently used as a motif in tattoos. According to some sources, one type in particular—a rough-carved, soft wood, traditionally blue-painted pendant thought to ward off evil—dates to as far back as the 5th century A.D. Another group is composed of pendants made of metal. More conspicuous than the former type, metal crosses are also more expensive and require a higher level of craftsmanship to produce.
A second category of wood, silver, bronze, or brass cross is produced in a hand-held size suited to use by Ethiopian priests and other holy persons for liturgicul purposes. From the 19th century onward, such pieces were often manufactured from the silver obtained from melting down silver coins, in particular ‘Maria Theresa thalers’. Hand-held crosses are characterised, among other things, by the rectangular decoration on their lower arms, a symbol for the Ark of the Covennant. The most spectacular are the large-sized specimens paraded ceremoniously before the faithful in religious processions, the earliest specimens likely dating to the 12th century. Processional crosses often feature swaths of fabric symbolising the clothing of the crucified Christ looped through their lower arms.
Cross pendant NM 67.76.36. Photo by Krisztina Sarnyai
A fifth and special type of Ethiopian cross is seen on the roofs of churches, frequently paired with an ostrich-egg motif. Symbolising fertility, the ostrich egg represents the survival of considerably more ancient beliefs within Christianity.
Hand-held cross NM 83.33.2. Photo by Krisztina Sarnyai
The cross pendants seen here originally belonged to the early 20th-century collection of Hungarian ornithologist, taxidermist, and international adventurer Mátyás Gajdács, whose travels encompassed a total of 54 years in Ethiopia. Gajdács, who also worked as a safari guide and animal catcher, sold his natural science collections to both Hungarian, and international museums. The Budapest Museum of Ethnography purchased this particular collection from Gajdács’s widow in 1968—save only the hand-held brass cross, procured by Mrs. Pál Csekme in Ethiopia during the early 1980s.
Hand-held cross NM 83.33.2
Cross pendant NM 67.76.11
Cross pendant NM 67.76.18
Cross pendant NM 67.76.36
Ethiopia, first half of the 20th century