The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

The Ethiopian Church in Jerusalem - Debre Genet (Sanctuary of Paradise)

Author - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan


There are two Ethiopian churches in Jerusalem. One, Deir Sultan, is in the Old City. It is located on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church symbolises the tenacious Ethiopian struggle over the centuries to maintain a foothold in Jerusalem. The story of Deir Sultan is for another time.

The exterior of the church of Kidane Mehret
The exterior of the church of Kidane Mehret, a rotunda in traditional Ethiopian style. The church is situated within the compound of the Debre Genet monastery in Jerusalem.
Photo © Geoffrey Ben-Nathan

The other, Kidane Mehret (Covenant of Mercy), part of the Monastery of Debre Genet (Sanctuary of Paradise), is in the modern city. Debre Genet is located, appropriately enough, in Ethiopia Street. Ethiopia Street, maybe 400 yards from one end to other, runs North to South, about a mile north west of the Old City. In English terms, the 'street' is a lane, little more than two cars wide.

At one end is the Street of the Prophets; at the other, Mea Shearim (Hundred Gates), a district of ultra-orthodox Jews. Though adjoining, the worlds of Mea Shearim and Debre Genet rarely impinge on one another.

In his book, The Two Zions (1989), the late Professor Edward Ullendorff, tells that he had his first lodgings in Ethiopia Street. Though, in his book he refers to it as Abyssinian Street. Originally the street was named Street of the Habashim (Abyssinians). No one is quite sure precisely when the name of the street was changed to Ethiopia.

Debre Genet was founded by the Emperor Yohannes IV (r. 1872 - 1889). Yohannes, it is said, funded the venture with war booty from his battles with the Ottomans. His land purchases in Jerusalem have proved to have been very wise and lucrative investments.

More land was acquired than that just needed for specifically ecclesiastical purposes. The Israel Broadcasting Authority in Jerusalem pays, or has paid, rent to the Ethiopian Church. A consulate building has been acquired and divided into apartments rented by Ethiopians and others.

Yohannes IV died in battle in 1889. He was succeeded by Menelik II (r. 1889 - 1913). Menelik continued to fund Debre Genet and other ecclesiastical ventures. The church, according to the plaque at its entrance, was completed by 1901.

Debre Genet lies in about an acre of ground. The Ge'ez word deber indicates a monastery. A surrounding high wall contains cells for monks and possibly nuns. Additional resources include a library, kitchens, and a well cultivated refectory garden. They all help sustain a small resident ecclesiastical community.

The complement of resident clergy at Debre Genet is hard to assess: it may comprise as many as twenty priests and nuns. Accurate figures are hard to come by. But some say that the wider Tewahedo Christian community in Jerusalem and its environs numbers over two thousand. Nearby Bethlehem and Jericho also possess Ethiopian churches. These too serve local communities.

I have been visiting Debre Genet virtually every year for the last twenty years. Despite this relative frequency I have failed to make much personal contact. I do say a tena yistilign to the priest who sits inside the main entrance of the church, Abba Haile Giorgis Kebbede. We smile and nod to each other. Mutual language difficulties preclude greater association. When not participating in a service, he is usually reading a text. Abba Haile is the priest in charge of the Church.

I have had contact with Sister or Emahoy Jerusalem. Sister Jerusalem has family in America and speaks excellent English. Ethiopian tradition, as elsewhere in Christendom, allows widows to eschew materiality and join the church. The Emahoy has followed in this tradi-tion but has now relocated back to Addis. Our mutual contact has been Prof. Steve Kaplan, Professor of African Studies and Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University. Prof. Kaplan visits the church to teach Hebrew to the monks and English to the children.

The Ethiopian Church in Jerusalem has attached to it a scholar of major international importance: Sister Dr. Kirsten Stoffregen Pedersen, also known as Emahoy Walatta Abraham. Emahoy Abraham is Danish in origin. Born in 1932, she has lived in Jerusalem since 1965 and joined the Ethiopian community as a nun in 1970. She is fluent in over ten languages and has published nearly twenty books in almost all of them. Her learned articles in academic journals are too numerous to list. Emahoy Abraham is a member of the teaching staff of the Thomas C. Oden Institute (TOPS). This institute familiarises students with the Judaeo-Christian heritage. If all this wasn't enough, she is the general editor of the 28 volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

As you would expect, the church, Kidane Mehret, is by far the most prominent feature of the monastery. It is a rotunda in traditional Ethiopian style. The pinnacle of the dome is well over a hundred feet above the ground, maybe more. The maqdas, wherein lies the Tabot, and the qeddest, where Communion is administered, is an independent four-sided construction within the church. There are messages in Amharic, Arabic, Italian, and French - one language per side - giving the visitor details of the constructional history of the church.

The qene mahlet, is the outer perambulatory where hymns are sung by debteras (prominent laymen with a choral role). As you walk around completing the circle of the qene mahlet, you might note that there are sixteen pillars supporting the interior construction of the maqdas.

Attached to each pillar is a picture. There are two pillars with pictures of the Virgin and Child; two of St. George killing the Dragon; two of St. Gebre Aregawi; a picture of Tekle Haimanot, the Founder of Debre Libanos; and a picture of Abba Samuel of Waldeba who travels through the desert on the back of a lion. The other pillars similarly display pictures familiar to every Ethiopian church goer.

The Passion of Christ is represented only by a cardboard cut-out affixed almost, it seems, as an after-thought, to the top of one of the sides of the maqdas. Neither is the cut-out in traditional Ethiopian style. It seems to have been brought in from a western source.

The church of Kidane Mehret is kept open every day when not in liturgical use. No charge is made to visitors. Perhaps because of this, visitors are not few. The church is certainly a must for Jerusalem tour guides. In Ethiopia itself, since the 1950s, there has been an Ethiopian Association for Jerusalem that coordinates Easter pilgrimages. The Association has raised funds and donated a building with a hall for events and also houses to accommodate distinguished visiting guests.

If you are in Jerusalem, you must put Debre Genet on your visiting list. The compound is a haven of peace and meditation, stress-relieving and very edifying. The monastery and church are an absolute 'must'.

The author is indebted to Professor Steve Kaplan of the Hebrew University for kindly consenting to read the draft and making amendments and corrections.


First Published in News File Winter 2012

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