The modern history of the Jews in Ethiopia begins with the reunification of Ethiopia in the mid-19th century during the reign of Theodore II.
At that time the Jewish community, known as Beta Israel, numbered between 200,000 to 350,000 people. The name Beta Israel originated in the 4th century AD when the community refused to convert to Christianity during the rule of Abraha and Atsbeha
This little known story, with roots that reach back to the time of Abraham, starts with the union of the great King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In Part 2 a promise is fulfilled. They are welcomed by the Jewish state, like prodigal sons returning to the land of Israel.
Perhaps the earliest Hebraic people came to the land of Ethiopia during the time of the prolonged drought and famine in Canaan at the time of Abraham (1812-1637BC).
This traditional history was the history of the Ethiopian monarchy. As black Jews they converted to Christianity with the belief that the messiah was Christ and saw no contradiction with the Old Testament. Indeed they believe themselves to be Judeo-Christian.
Until the time of Amha Selassie, the last Solomonic emperor of Ethiopia whose rule ended in 1974, the State was known as “King of Kings from the tribe of Judah.” They had the Star of David as their symbol of power and ordination. The Ethiopian royal family based their right to rule on a dynastic line stretching back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Emperor Amha Selassie, son of Haile Selassie 1, died in the United States in 1997.
From Emperors of Ethiopia, Abyssinia this account of early Ethiopian history:
“Ethiopia was its own kind of cultural island universe for centuries, a beleaguered bastion of Christianity in an isolating sea of Islam, a successor, not just to the Middle Eastern traditions through Yemen, but to the original Ethiopia of the Greeks, the sub-Egyptian kingdom of Kush, which began with the Egyptian 25th Dynasty (751-656 BC), from Piankhy to Tanuatamun, and which, although driven out of Egypt by the Assyrians, flourished at Napata (where pyramids were actually built) and Meroë for many centuries. Indeed, the highland Ethiopia, or Abyssinia, itself may have brought the kingdom of Meroë to an end, around 355 AD”
In Ethiopia, black Jews practised the earliest forms of Judaism, which existed in the pre-Judaic Culture of early Israelites, and pre-Talmudic Judaism. Ethiopic, also referred to as Axum or Ge’ez, was the language spoken by the early black Jews. It is the only Semitic language which has never been changed and it is still actively used in the Ethiopian Church.
According to oral tradition a large group of Levites also came to Ethiopia carrying the Ark of the Covenant, or the Tslate Musi as it was known, during the time of Emperor Manasseh of Israel, who was the King of Judah (697-642BC). He made it his mission to desecrate the Temple and to attempt to convert the children of Israel into pagans. The wicked monarch’s reign lasted 55 years, longer than any other king in Israel’s history.
During his reign Manasseh instituted the blatant worship of idols and pagan rituals.
So the Ark of the Covenant was spirited away from the evil King. The Tslate Musi was kept on the island of Tana Kirqos in Lake Tana, near Gonder, for more than 900 years.
“And he caused his children to pass through the fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom; also he observed times, and used enchantments, and used witchcraft, and dealt with a familiar spirit, and with wizards: he wrought much evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger.”
— II Chronicles 33:6
Eventually God’s patience ran out and then the Assyrian army like a whirlwind descended on Jerusalem. They put a hook in Manasseh’s nose and bound him in bronze shackles and carried him off to prison in Babylon.
The West became aware of the existence of the black Jews of Ethiopia, the Beta Israel community, in the mid-19th century. The Protestant missionaries of the “London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews” began operating in Ethiopia in 1859. Led by a converted Jew, Henry Aaron Stern, the Protestant missionaries converted many of the Beta Israel community to Christianity.
Part 2 of this article covers the fascinating story of Beta Israel’s return to the land of Israel.
Sources: The Snunit Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Sacred Destinations; JewishEncyclopedia.com; JewishVirtualLibrary.org; The Story of the Ethiopian Jews by Yohannes Zeleke (pdf)