By Stéphane Ancel
The presence of Ethiopians Orthodox in Jerusalem is attested at least from the 13th century. But during the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, the Ethiopian Orthodox community knew a great revival: the number of Ethiopians increased, buildings dedicated to them were bought or erected. Among others, historians like Littmann, Cerulli, Pétridis, Meinardus, Makonnen Zäwde or Pedersen have offered valuable studies about the Ethiopian community in Jerusalem, especially Pedersen, who for the first time produced a very clear and precise history of this community during the 19th and 20th centuries. But if the outline of the history of the community is known, there is a great lack concerning its involvement in Jerusalem city life during that period. Besides, the characteristics of the archives of the community are basically not known: only few documents were accessible to historians and even Pedersen, herself a member of this community, had a restricted access to these documents. During this period the community must have produced many documents. In fact, the main idea behind the Open Jerusalem project is that the archives of the community should provide documents which permit an understanding of the involvement of the community in the daily life of Jerusalem at that period and its relationship with the local municipality and the other communities in the town.
After a meeting with Open Jerusalem director Vincent Lemire and me, the Ethiopian Orthodox community in Jerusalem was enthusiastic about the project and his Holiness Abunä Matthias, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Addis Ababa, and his Grace Abunä Enbakom, Archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Holy Land, gave us the access to the archives of the community in Jerusalem. The study of these archives has just started. So far, the documents uncovered are administrative and financial documents, such as payment receipts, cheques, bank documents, financial reports, letters and correspondences concerning daily problems of the community, registers, etc. As a whole, these documents open a window onto the daily life of the community, showing the problems and opportunities facing a foreign religious community established abroad as regards setting up, supplies, access to public services, administration or worship.
Here are some examples among the documents collected:
– Receipts and payment document showing Ethiopian involvement in local networks
– Receipts and payment documents to the municipality.
We can observe that Ethiopians had different interlocutors, according to specific needs and opportunities. Interesting enough, each interlocutor required the use of a specific language, for example, English with the British municipality, French with Russian community and different languages with local merchants. Worship also posed a problem, with documents bringing to light the role of the municipality in solving the problems and, at first, the problem regarding use of the Holy Sepulcher. Also some documents bring to light ownership problems of the community.
The problem of the Dayr al-Sultan monastery is well-known: Ethiopians during that period claimed the ownership over this monastery, located at the roof of St. Helena’s Chapel, in the Holy Sepulcher. This claim was contested by the Coptic community (as is the case today). This case is known especially thanks to the work of Cerulli, Pétridis and Pedersen, and some documents concerning this case were published by Abunä Philippos, first Ethiopian bishop of Jerusalem.
No spectacular documents concerning this case has yet surfaced during our investigation in Jerusalem. But a very interesting book could be identified. A manuscript, in paper, written in 1883 in the Ethiopian Calendar (AD 1890–91) by an Ethiopian monk called Wäldä Mädhen could be found. In his manuscript, Wäldä Mädhen describes the daily life of Ethiopians in Dayr al-Sultan at that time, their difficulties and their relations with other communities. Makonnen Zäwde described it briefly in the beginning of 1970s but Pedersen did not have access to this book. Analysis and study of that book is in progress, in addition to the study of the known text called “History of Dayr Sultan.”
Maybe less known, documents present the case where the Ethiopian community was the owner of houses rented to institutions or individuals. These documents are crucial to understanding how the community built and managed its properties in the Holy Land. Administrating places of worship in Jerusalem required great flexibility, in using a specific language with specific interlocutors, in establishing relations with different middlemen involved in the local social network, in using specific networks of merchants for supplies, and in establishing itself in Jerusalem scene.
Thanks to the full collaboration of the Ethiopian Orthodox authorities, the ongoing study of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem will open a great window on the daily life of the Ethiopian Orthodox community in Jerusalem from 1840 to 1940.