The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

Without doubt, the most difficult and challenging period in the history of the Ethiopian Church was the sixteenth century. The Christian kingdom itself was nearly destroyed by the Muslim invasion led by Ah. mad ibn-Ibrahim al-Ghazi, known in Ethiopian tradition as Gran, 'the left-handed', whose predominantly Somali and Afar armies with some Yemeni and Ottoman help swept through the Ethiopian highlands from the south-east between 1525 and 1543. Gran's troops destroyed and looted churches, massacring anyone who refused to convert to Islam. For centuries there had been wars of attrition on the Ethiopian kingdom's eastern and south-eastern frontiers between Christians and Muslims, culminating in the founding of Harar as the major Muslim powerbase and centre of Islamic culture in the Horn of Africa, but it is probable that the arrival of the Ottomans in the Red Sea gave the impetus to these Muslim communities to mount the jihad against Ethiopia under Ahmad Gran.

In response to the invasion, the then king of Ethiopia, Labna Dangal, appealed to the Portuguese for help. Ethiopia had been establishing contacts with first the Florentines and Rome and then the Portuguese since the second half of the fifteenth century, and reciprocal embassies had passed between Lisbon and the Ethiopian court. Ethiopian interest in Europe was as much prompted by a desire for technological advances, particularly in weapons and firearms. European interest in Ethiopia was rather fired by the legends of Prester John and the discovery of a potential Christian ally beyond the Islamic world. Portuguese help did not arrive until 1541, by which time Labna Dangal was dead and his successor, Galawdewos, was on the throne, but within two years Ahmad Gran was dead and his armies defeated and dispersed.

However, with the Portuguese came the Jesuits, since the Portuguese sought to act as agents of the See of Rome. Rome wished to bring Ethiopia within its fold, but failed fully to appreciate the history, nature and spiritual independence of the Ethiopian Church. The Jesuits were dismayed in particular by what they saw as the Jewish features of Ethiopian Christian practice and belief, but were initially unable to persuade the king and church leadership to alter their convictions. Following in the tradition of Ethiopian monarchs intimately concerned with religious questions, Galawdewos

(r. 1540-59) rejected the primacy of Rome. He was moved to write a reply to Jesuit accusations against the Ethiopian Church, the confession of faith generally known as the Confessio Claudii, in which he clearly stated how Ethiopian beliefs and practices all had their roots in the scriptures (Ullendorff 1987). The Jesuit challenge was a bitter experience for the Ethiopian Church, and led eventually to civil war instigated by the clumsy dealings of the Jesuit Mendez, who lacked the tact and learning of his predecessor, Pero Paez. Paez had succeeded in persuading King Susnayos (r. 1607-32) to convert, for which he was deposed and probably murdered by his son and successor, Fasiladas (r. 1632-67), who later oversaw the expulsion of the Jesuits from Ethiopia. The country then virtually closed its doors on the West for a century and a half. The single positive result of the Jesuit experience, however, was that it forced the Ethiopian Church to re-examine its doctrinal position and define its own theology, a process that lasted nearly until the end of the nineteenth century. Out of this process arose a major renaissance in intellectual, artistic and literary activity in the Church.

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